WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An elite U.S. Marine Corp unit accused of killing at least 10 Afghan civilians has been called home early after commanders decided they could no longer operate effectively, a spokesman said on Saturday.
The order to remove the 120-member unit came from Maj. General Francis Kearney, who commands U.S. Special Operations forces in the Middle East and central Asia, after local anger over the March 4 fighting hampered their mission.
“General Kearney assessed that the relationship was damaged to the point that the unit could not as effectively conduct counterinsurgency operations, so he moved them out,” said spokesman Lt. Col. Lou Leto.
Afghan officials say U.S. Marines shot dead at least 10 people during fighting outside Jalalabad, a city in eastern Afghanistan near Pakistan. New York-based Human Rights Watch says between eight and 16 civilians were killed.
Hundreds protested against the U.S. military after the violence and President Hamid Karzai condemned the incident.
The U.S. military at the time cited a “complex” Taliban ambush involving a suicide car bombing and gunfire in a populated area.
The military said the Marines, members of a highly trained special operations force, fired in self-defense and that 16 civilians died in the suicide raid and subsequent fighting. The group was several months into a six-month deployment.
The U.S. military has since opened an investigation into the deaths. Leto said that an investigating officer had visited the area to interview local people.
No provincial or central Afghan government official has confirmed the U.S. military’s account that the convoy came under rebel attack.
Two provincial Afghan government officials said at the time that 10 civilians were killed and more than 25 wounded. Some of the injured who were hospitalized said U.S. soldiers just opened fire.
Analysts say the killing of civilians by NATO and U.S. troops is sapping public support for the foreign mission in Afghanistan.