msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/7/2010 7:03:58 PM ET 2010-01-08T00:03:58

Two former Blackwater contractors were arrested Thursday on murder charges in the shooting deaths of two Afghans and the wounding of a third after a traffic accident last year.

A 13-count indictment unsealed hours after the arrests charges Justin Cannon, 27, and Chris Drotleff, 29, with second-degree murder, attempted murder and weapons charges. FBI agents arrested both of them without incident, said Peter Carr, a spokesman with the U.S. attorney's office in Virginia's eastern district.

Both men have said in recent interviews with The Associated Press that they were justified in opening fire on a car that caused an accident in front of their vehicle, then turned and sped toward them after they got out to help.

The indictment says the May 5 shooting at a Kabul intersection killed two men. At least one other person was injured.

"I feel comfortable firing my weapon any time I feel my life is in danger," Drotleff said in a recent interview. "That night, my life was 100 percent in danger."

Drotleff made a first court appearance Thursday afternoon and requested an attorney to be appointed. He was ordered held until a detention hearing next week. Officials said Cannon made an initial appearance in Texas.

Contractor oversight
The arrests came a day after Xe, the company formerly known as Blackwater, settled a series of federal lawsuits alleging that illegal activity by the company led to the deaths of dozens of Iraqis. Those killings and other problems in Iraq have strained relations between Washington and Baghdad and led to the U.S. government's push to increase oversight of contractors in war zones.

U.S. officials have struggled to demonstrate that they have both the legal grounds and political fortitude to hold contractors accountable.

Several Blackwater contractors had been charged with 14 counts of manslaughter for their role in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad's Nisoor Square. But a federal judge in Washington last week dismissed those charges, saying Justice Department prosecutors improperly built their case on sworn statements that had been given under a promise of immunity.

The decision incensed many Iraqis, who said it proved what they long believed: U.S. security contractors were above the law. The Iraqi government has vowed to pursue the case.

In another case, federal prosecutors have told a Seattle attorney they intend to charge another Blackwater contractor in the killing of an Iraqi guard in 2006.

The killings were among the violence cited by the federal lawsuits, which accused the company of cultivating a reckless culture that allowed innocent civilians to be killed. Plaintiffs' lawyers filed a motion late Wednesday requesting the seven lawsuits be dismissed after the settlement was reached.

The company said it was pleased with the settlement and ready to move on, declining to release its full terms. Xe declined to comment on Thursday's indictment other than to say that the men were fired and that the company "immediately and fully cooperated with the government's investigation."

'My conscience is clear'
Cannon, of Corpus Christi, Texas, and Drotleff, of Virginia Beach, Va., were among four contractors fired after the shooting for failing to comply with the terms of their contract with Paravant, a Xe subsidiary.

Steve McClain, another former contractor who was with Cannon and Drotleff during the shootings, told the AP he spent about 90 minutes before a Virginia grand jury this week detailing his recollections of what happened.

Cannon, Drotleff and McClain said in separate interviews with the AP over the past month that they were driving along a Kabul road on the night of May 5 when a speeding car slammed into the first vehicle of their convoy, causing it to flip.

Cannon and Drotleff were traveling in another vehicle and got out to help. They both said the car that caused the accident turned and started speeding toward them. Fearing for their lives, both opened fire, with Drotleff emptying a 16-round clip. Cannon was unsure how many shots were fired.

"My conscience is clear about it, but that doesn't really matter," Cannon said. "If someone's got an agenda, then there's nothing I can do about it."

The former workers complained that Blackwater tried to make them a scapegoat. They said the company armed some of its workers in Afghanistan despite U.S. military documents that prohibited them from carrying guns. The contractors were in Kabul to help train the Afghan National Army.

McClain's termination letter from Blackwater cited violation of alcohol policy, and he said that topic was one focus of grand jury questioning.

"I wasn't drinking and I didn't witness (any of the other contractors) drinking that day," said McClain, 25, of California.

A fourth contractor at the scene, Amando Hamid, did not return messages seeking comment.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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