WASHINGTON – A preliminary U.S. military investigation indicates that more than 40 Afghans killed or wounded by Marines after a suicide bombing in a village near Jalalabad last month were civilians, the U.S. commander who ordered the probe said Saturday.
Maj. Gen. Frank Kearney, head of Special Operations Command Central, also said there is no evidence that the Marine Special Operations platoon came under small-arms fire after the bombing, although the Marines reported taking enemy fire and seeing people with weapons. The troops continued shooting at perceived threats as they traveled miles from the site of the March 4 attack, he said. They hit several vehicles, killing at least 10 people and wounding 33, among them children and elderly villagers.
“We found … no brass that we can confirm that small-arms fire came at them,” Kearney said, referring to ammunition casings. “We have testimony from Marines that is in conflict with unanimous testimony from civilians at the sites,” Kearney said from his headquarters in Qatar, where he oversees all U.S. Special Operations forces in the region, including in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The results of the preliminary investigation, which are not conclusive, are similar to the findings of an official Afghan human rights inquiry and contradict initial reports that the civilians might have been killed in a small-arms attack that followed the suicide bombing.
On Kearney’s orders, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service is conducting a probe that could lead to courts-martial of those involved.
The military investigation found direct evidence, such as broken glass, showing the Marines kept firing for about three miles as they left the ambush site in a convoy, Kearney said. But he did not dispute allegations from the Afghan human right investigation that the shooting had gone on much longer.
The civilian death and injury toll in the incident is one of the largest for which coalition troops are allegedly responsible since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001.
“This was a single incident that had a catastrophic outcome from a perceptions point of view,” Kearney said. “There was an inordinate amount of civilian deaths as a result of a (suicide vehicle bomb) that had not much effect on our convoy,” Kearney said. “Everyone takes this very, very seriously.”
One Marine suffered a shrapnel wound in the suicide bombing, but there was no need for medical evacuation.
The Marines Special Operations Company had begun operations from its base in Jalalabad about Feb. 19, Kearney said, and the platoon was conducting a patrol to familiarize itself with local routes on March 4 when the ambush took place.
The six-Humvee convoy had stopped at another U.S. camp near the Pakistan border and was on its way back to Jalalabad when a Toyota van moved to the shoulder along with other oncoming traffic. The van suddenly swerved between the first and second Humvees, and the suicide bomber detonated the bomb, Kearney said.
Marines in the convoy believed that they were taking enemy fire from several locations along the sides of the road, Kearney said. They judged vehicles along the road as threats and shot at five of them – one because it failed to respond to their direction, and another because it appeared to be trying to force them in a certain direction, Kearney said.
“They reported receiving enemy fire from a number of locations … they believed they saw folks with weapons,” he said.
The investigation found 10 killed and 33 wounded, while an official Afghan report put the numbers at 12 killed and 35 wounded.