updated 4/11/2007 1:11:21 PM ET 2007-04-11T17:11:21

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 to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service for a broader 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 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 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 part of a newly formed unit of special operations forces based at Camp LeJeune, N.C.

Disputed accounts of attack
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 Marines are in a special operations unit that deployed from Camp LeJeune 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.

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