KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. military and the Afghan government said Thursday they will investigate a TV report that claimed U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan burned the bodies of two Taliban fighters and taunted other Islamic militants.
The U.S. military said such abuse would be “repugnant,” and the State Department said U.S. embassies around the world have been told to counter a potential backlash by telling local governments that the alleged actions do not reflect American values.
A spokesman for President Hamid Karzai said the government has launched its own inquiry.
“We strongly condemn any disrespect to human bodies regardless of whether they are those of enemies or friends,” said Karzai spokesman Karim Rahimi.
Australia’s SBS television network broadcast video that purportedly showed U.S. soldiers burning the bodies of the suspected Taliban fighters in the hills outside the southern village of Gonbaz, near the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
The network said the video was taken by a freelance journalist, Stephen Dupont, who told the Associated Press he was embedded with the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade earlier this month. Dupont said the burnings happened Oct. 1.
Taunting messages broadcast
In the video, which was seen by the AP, two soldiers who spoke with American accents later broadcast taunting messages that the SBS said targeted the village, which was believed to be harboring Taliban soldiers.
“Taliban, you are all cowardly dogs. You allowed your fighters to be laid down facing west and burned. You are too scared to come down and retrieve their bodies,” said one message read in the local dialect by a soldier, according to a transcript.
Dupont said the soldiers responsible for the loudspeaker broadcasts were part of a U.S. Army psychological operations unit.
The U.S. military said the Army Criminal Investigation Command had opened an investigation into alleged misconduct that included “the burning of dead enemy combatant bodies under inappropriate circumstances.”
“This alleged action is repugnant to our common values,” Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya said in a statement from the U.S. base in Bagram, Afghanistan. “This command takes all allegations of misconduct or inappropriate behavior seriously and has directed an investigation into circumstances surrounding this allegation.”
Allegations called ‘very troubling’
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the allegations against the U.S. troops are “very serious” and, if true, “very troubling.”
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said that burning bodies “is not anywhere close to our standard operating procedure. It’s not something that is consistent with their procedures.”
Whitman said he is not aware of any other similar incidents.
He said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who is traveling in South Korea, has been informed, but he does not believe Rumsfeld has seen any of the video. The unit involved is still in Afghanistan, Whitman said, but he did not know if anyone had been relieved of duty pending the investigation.
Islamic clerics warned protests may break out, though there was no sign of unrest by Thursday afternoon. The last anti-American riots were in May and killed 15 people.
“This is against Islam. Afghans will be shocked by this news. It is so humiliating,” said Faiz Mohammed, a Muslim leader. “There are very, very dangerous consequences from this. People will be very angry.”
Police in Shah Wali Kot district, where Gonbaz village is located, said hundreds of Taliban rebels are believed to be hiding in camps in the mountainous region.
“It is a near certainty that the Taliban will ambush vehicles in this area,” said Abaidullah Khan, the district police chief. “We only go there with American forces. It’s not safe otherwise.”
Alleged taunts were translated
The footage shot by Dupont did not show the messages being broadcast, though it did show that some military vehicles were fitted with speakers and playing loud music.
Dupont told the AP the messages had been broadcast in the local dialect but were translated into English for him by members of the Army psychological operations unit.
He declined to provide further information, however, saying his agent was now handling all queries about the footage.
Cremation of bodies is not part of Islamic tradition, which calls for remains to be washed, prayed over, wrapped in white cloth and buried within 24 hours.
Dupont said the soldiers who burned the bodies said they did so for hygiene reasons. However, Dupont said the incendiary messages later broadcast by the U.S. army psychological operations unit indicated they were aware that the cremation would be perceived as a desecration.
“They used that as a psychological warfare, I guess you’d call it. They used the fact that the Taliban were burned facing west (toward Mecca),” Dupont told SBS. “They deliberately wanted to incite that much anger from the Taliban so the Taliban could attack them ... . That’s the only way they can find them.”
The SBS report suggested the deliberate burning of bodies could violate the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of enemy remains in wartime. Under the Geneva Conventions, soldiers must ensure that the “dead are honorably interred, if possible according to the rites of the religion to which they belonged.”
Furthermore, the rules state that bodies should not be cremated, “except for imperative reasons of hygiene or for motives based on the religion of the deceased.”
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