WASHINGTON -- An Army commander apologized and paid compensation yesterday to families of Afghan civilians killed by Marines after a suicide attack in March, marking the first formal acknowledgment by American authorities that the killings were unjustified.
Col. John Nicholson, an Army brigade commander in eastern Afghanistan, met yesterday with the families of the 19 Afghans killed and 50 wounded when a Marines Special Operations unit opened fire along a crowded stretch of road near Jalalabad after a suicide car bomber rammed their convoy.
"I stand before you today, deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people," Nicholson said, recounting to reporters the words he used in the meetings. Speaking in a videoconference to reporters at the Pentagon, he added: "We made official apologies on the part of the U.S. government" and paid $2,000 for each death.
The incident is the subject of a criminal investigation by the Pentagon. But the decision to issue a public apology reflects the military's growing concern that a spate of recent civilian casualties has led to widespread ill will among Afghans and could jeopardize military operations.
"Anytime we're responsible for the loss of innocent life, we understand that that hurts our ability to accomplish the mission," Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said yesterday.
Offering payments to relatives of victims is considered by the U.S. military as vital in allaying anger among civilians in both Afghanistan and Iraq, where the military regularly makes payments when it kills noncombatants.
Such payments are sometimes accompanied by statements saying that the military is not acknowledging that its soldiers acted improperly. But in this case, Nicholson went further than usual in acknowledging that the civilians were "innocent Afghans."
"This is a terrible, terrible mistake, and my nation grieves with you for your loss and suffering. We humbly and respectfully ask for your forgiveness," he said in his statement to the families.
The company commander and the senior enlisted Marine from the unit involved in the incident were relieved of duty last month. Along with six other Marines involved, they were sent back to Camp Lejeune, N.C., until the investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigation Service is completed, according to Maj. Cliff W. Gilmore, a spokesman for the Marine Special Operations Command.
Criminal charges could be brought against at least five Marines involved in the shootings, a Marine official has said.
Anger among Afghans at American tactics has seemed to only intensify since the March 4 incident. After a separate incident in western Afghanistan this month, President Hamid Karzai warned at a news conference that continuing civilian casualties would not be tolerated.
Afghan officials assert that dozens of civilians were killed in the May incident after a joint U.S. and Afghan army patrol was ambushed near the town of Shindand and called in airstrikes. About 40 civilians, including women and children, were killed and 50 more were wounded in the attacks, officials from the province of Herat have told reporters.
The U.S. military said last weekend that more than 10 Taliban commanders were among those killed in the fighting around Shindand, although it did not identify them. But the command has also said that it is investigating with Afghan officials reports that civilians were among the casualties.
Hundreds of Afghans protested after the killings involving Marines in March. In response, Army Maj. Gen. Francis H. Kearney III, the commander of Special Operations troops in the Middle East and Central Asia, ordered the 120-Marine unit out of Afghanistan after concluding the killings had damaged the unit's ability to be effective.
Nicholson said the Army made extensive efforts to find anyone who might have been injured along the crowded highway or their families, including those not from the immediate area.