Army apologizes for alleged Marine shootings
By William H. McMichael & Trista Talton - Staff writers
Posted : Tuesday May 8, 2007 13:08:14 EDT
An Army colonel in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday apologized and made condolence payments to families of civilians allegedly killed by special operations Marines after a suicide bomber struck the Marines' vehicle convoy.
He said the killing and wounding of "innocent Afghans at the hands of Americans is a stain on our honor," despite the fact that the criminal investigation into the incident has not been completed.
The March 4 incident in Nangarhar province left 19 civilians dead and 53 wounded, said Army Col. John Nicholson, commander of the 10th Mountain Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, which is winding down its deployment following 16 months away from home. The number of dead is well beyond previous reports, which ranged from 10 to 12.
"We came here to help the Afghan people and the Afghan government, not to hurt you," Nicholson said, re-reading for Pentagon reporters via satellite the statement he gave to the families of the victims. "So I stand before you today deeply, deeply ashamed, and terribly sorry, that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people.
"We are filled with grief and sadness at the death of any Afghan," Nicholson continued. "But the death and wounding of innocent Afghans at the hand of Americans is a stain on our honor, and on the deaths of the many Americans who have died defending Afghanistan and the Afghan people.
"This was a terrible, terrible mistake," Nicholson said. "And my nation grieves with you for your loss and suffering. We humbly and respectfully ask for your forgiveness."
Nicholson said such events "do set us back with the population, and they have to be addressed very directly and forthrightly with the Afghan people." The families' response, he said, was "very positive. Showing them the appropriate respect is culturally significant. And seeing the genuine remorse we have for incidents such as this is important in terms of keeping them with us."
Marine Maj. Cliff Gilmore, spokesman for Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command at Camp Lejeune, N.C., said his command is not characterizing the incident until the investigation has been completed.
"We regret the March 4 ambush of the Marine Special Operations Company in Afghanistan and offer our deepest sympathy to all of those involved," Gilmore said. "The events related to that ambush are currently under investigation. In the interest of preserving the presumption of innocence that all U.S. service members deserve when facing allegations of misconduct, we will not characterize the incident until we have all the facts."
Ed Buice, a spokesman for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in Washington, said agents continue with their investigation.
"It will be [ongoing] for a good while simply because of the logistical issues if nothing else to have a team of agents in Afghanistan," Buice said. "As far as I know, they're still there."
Nicholson's comments mark the second time that a prominent Army official has publicly cast doubt on the Marines' innocence. On April 14, Army Maj. Gen. Frank Kearney, the top special operations officer in the Middle East, told the Washington Post that a preliminary investigation showed there was no evidence that Marines had taken small-arms fire from Afghans after the car bomb struck the Marine convoy.
Kearney, days after the ambush, took the unusual step of expelling all 120 Marines from Afghanistan, where they had been deployed since February. On April 3, officials with MarSOC relieved the company commander and senior enlisted Marine and brought them back to the U.S. Since then, MarSOC has acknowledged that six other Marines — a total of eight — have been sent home while the company remains deployed in the Middle East.
Lawyers for several of the Marines under investigation told Marine Corps Times last week that their clients' retelling of events clashed with Kearney's, and said they have evidence to back the claim that the Marines did indeed take small-arms fire from enemy fighters in the area and were forced to defend themselves after the initial ambush.
The Army colonel's new comments raised the ire of at least one defense attorney involved in the case.
Victor Kelley, an attorney for a gunnery sergeant, said Tuesday that, "based on my information of the facts [the colonel] just got it wrong."
"My client has done nothing wrong," Kelley said. "When this case is tried outside of the court of public opinion he will be found not guilty. I can say with confidence the colonel has it wrong."
He pointed out the different reports of casualties coming from the government. Nicholson said 19 civilians were killed. Kearney said that, according to a preliminary investigation, 10 civilians were killed.
"I don't think the government knows what the heck has happened, especially when you've got senior officers making a blanket apology for these Marines before they've even been tried."
The "solatia" payments — so described because they were made to express condolences rather than a "legal claim per se," Nicholson said — varied with the type of loss a family suffered. If a family member was killed, he said, the family was paid 100,000 Afghani — the equivalent of about $2,000, he said.
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MarSOC mum after general's comments
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Army general kicks Marines out of Afghanistan
Afghan civilians shot after ambush on Marines
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