A U.S. military commander has determined that Marines accused of killing civilians after a suicide bombing in Afghanistan last month used excessive force, and he has referred the case for possible criminal inquiry, The Associated Press has learned.
The initial investigation of the March 4 incident, in which up to a dozen Afghan civilians are reported to have died, concluded that the Marines’ response was “out of proportion to the threat that was immediately there,” a senior defense official said Wednesday.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the probe’s results have not been released. The findings have been forwarded to Central Command, which has responsibility for U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia.
The case has also been referred to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service for a broader criminal inquiry, the official said.
Another official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the initial military investigation concluded that there was a “reasonable suspicion” that the Marines violated the rules for the use of deadly force, and that crimes, possibly including homicide, may have been committed in the aftermath of the convoy being struck by a car bomb.
The Naval investigative service got the case within the past week but has not yet begun interviewing the Marines, this official said. This official said the number of Marines involved in the case is “in the 20s.” They were in six military vehicles that were traveling in a convoy at the time of the incident.
In the March 4 incident in Nangahar province, an explosives-rigged minivan crashed into a convoy of Marines that U.S. officials said also came under fire from gunmen. Reports of the number of dead and wounded varied. Injured Afghans said the Americans fired on civilian cars and pedestrians as they sped away.
U.S. military officials said militant gunmen shot at Marines and may have caused some of the civilian casualties.
The Afghan government has done its own investigation and the results are pending. President Hamid Karzai condemned the incident, which was one among several involving U.S. forces in which civilians were killed and injured.
Army Maj. Gen. Francis H. Kearney III, head of Special Operations Command Central, began his investigation after taking the highly unusual step of ordering the unit of about 120 Marines out of Afghanistan.
The Marines are in a special operations unit that deployed from Camp LeJeune, N.C., in January with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. After Kearney ordered them out of Afghanistan they returned to the ships of the 26th in the Persian Gulf.
Their unit is one of four Marine Special Operations Command companies that have been established since the command was created in February 2006. The one ordered out of Afghanistan was the first to deploy abroad.