updated 10/8/2007 3:40:52 PM ET 2007-10-08T19:40:52

Afghanistan executed 15 prisoners by gunfire, including a man convicted of killing three Western journalists and an Afghan photographer, the chief of prisons said Monday. It was the first time the country had carried out the death penalty in three years.

The mass execution took place Sunday evening according to Afghan law, which calls for condemned prisoners to be shot to death, said Abdul Salam Ismat.

Afghanistan’s hard-line Taliban regime carried out executions in public, many of them at the war-shattered Kabul stadium, but the practice stopped after they were ousted from power by the U.S.-led coalition in late 2001.

The latest executions were Afghanistan’s first state-sanctioned ones since April 2004. The London-based human rights group Amnesty International denounced that execution, saying President Hamid Karzai had earlier assured the group he would institute a moratorium on the death penalty.

Karzai’s spokesman, Humayun Hamidzada, refused comment Monday. Last week Hamidzada told The Associated Press that Karzai “takes extreme care in execution cases.”

“He has been holding on to these cases because he wants to make sure that the justice is served and the due process is complete. He personally does not like executions, but Afghan law asks for it, and he will obey the laws,” he said.

Death penalty may complicate relationships
The mass executions are likely to complicate relationships between Afghanistan and some NATO countries with military forces in the country. International troops often take militants prisoner and later hand them over to the Afghan government, but some countries’ governments will not let them do so if Afghanistan is known to use capital punishment.

The official announcement during the news hour Monday evening said Karzai ordered the executions following a decision by a special commission he had set up to review rulings by the Supreme Court.

“After all the discussions and after looking back over the cases ... in order to prevent future crimes, such as murders, armed robberies, kidnappings and to maintain the stability of the country, (Karzai) approved the prisoners’ death sentences,” a statement read over the news said.

Tom Koenigs, the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, said the U.N. has expressed its concern over the use of the death penalty many times in the past.

“The United Nations in Afghanistan has been a staunch supporter of the moratorium on executions observed in Afghanistan in recent years,” Koenigs said.

Four Western journalists killed
Among those executed was Reza Khan, sentenced for adultery and the slaying of three foreign journalists and an Afghan photographer in 2001. The four were pulled from their cars, robbed and shot near the eastern city of Jalalabad while they were driving toward Kabul six days after the Taliban abandoned Kabul following heavy U.S. bombing.

The four were Australian TV cameraman Harry Burton, Afghan photographer Azizullah Haidari of Reuters news agency, Maria Grazia Cutuli of Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera and Julio Fuentes of the Spanish El Mundo daily.

Also executed was Farhad, who like many Afghans goes by only one name, involved in the 2005 kidnapping of an Italian aid worker Clementina Cantoni.

In violence Monday, 16 militants fighting under a wanted Uzbek warlord with a $200,000 bounty on his head were killed in airstrikes in eastern Afghanistan.

Separately, an Afghan child who apparently walked onto a NATO training site was killed, officials said Monday.

A roadside bomb killed a soldier in the NATO-led force in Uruzgan province, said Maj. Charles Anthony, spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. Australian and Dutch troops make up the majority of troops in Uruzgan.

Also in Uruzgan, two Dutch Apache helicopters were hit by enemy fire Monday, the Dutch Defense Ministry said in a statement. Both landed safely and their crews were not injured. The helicopters supporting to ground troops when they were hit in the rotor blades. Dutch forces based in Tirin Kot have five Apache helicopters.

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