WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A group of U.S. Army soldiers accused of killing unarmed Afghan civilians in cold blood did not act clandestinely as the Pentagon has implied but in plain view of their combat unit, Rolling Stone magazine reported on Monday.
The magazine said a review of Army investigative files showed the civilian killings were common knowledge among the soldiers' unit of the 5th Stryker Brigade, contrary to the impression left by the Army's criminal case that they were operating without the awareness of their commanders.
The article said questions were raised about the unit's behavior within days of the first killing in January 2010, but the issue was dropped after the soldiers were interviewed again about the incident and told consistent stories.
"It was cut and dry to us at the time," the magazine quoted Lieutenant Colonel David Abrahams, the battalion's second in command, as saying.
The article appeared with a pair of photos previously published by the German magazine Der Spiegel showing two soldiers charged in the January killing posed separately with the bloodied corpse of their young Afghan victim, whose head they are holding up by the hair.
One of those soldiers, Army Specialist Jeremy Morlock, 23, was sentenced last week to 24 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to three counts of premeditated murder and apologized in court, saying, "I lost my moral compass."
Rolling Stone published several additional gruesome photos of unidentified casualties but said it was not known whether the bodies shown were of civilians or Taliban fighters, or whether they were killed by members of the same Army unit.
The magazine also posted online a video clip showing U.S. soldiers on foot patrol gunning down two Afghan men they encountered riding a motorbike, although it was unclear whether the two men were armed as the troops claim in the footage.
A second video, titled "Death Zone," consists of thermal imaging surveillance footage, set to rock music, of a nighttime air strike on two Afghan men suspected of planting an improvised explosive device.
The Army issued a statement apologizing for the distress cause by publication of the latest images, calling them "disturbing and in striking contrast to the standards and values of the United States Army."
"Accountability remains the Army's paramount concern in these alleged crimes," the statement said, adding the matter was being pursued in court.
Morlock was the first of five soldiers charged with murder last year in connection with three random killings of Afghan villagers allegedly staged to look like combat casualties.
The case represents the most serious prosecution of alleged U.S. military atrocities during 10 years of war in Afghanistan. Seven other members of the unit were charged with lesser crimes during the investigation, which grew out of a probe into rampant hashish use by some American soldiers.
Civilian attorneys for Morlock and other defendants have suggested the Stryker Brigade suffered from a breakdown in leadership and that commanders bore some responsibility for the misbehavior of their troops. Only enlisted men have thus far been charged in the criminal probe.