The U.S. military said Wednesday it is looking into the unauthorized release of a photo purportedly taken by an American drone aircraft showing scores of Taliban militants at a funeral in Afghanistan.
NBC TV claimed U.S. Army officers wanted to attack the ceremony with missiles carried by the Predator drone, but were prevented under rules of battlefield engagement that bar attacks on cemeteries.
Lt. Tamara Lawrence, a spokeswoman with the U.S. military in Kabul, said the photograph was released to the network by someone who did not have the clearance to hand it out.
“It is an operational security issue and the photo was released at an inappropriate level,” Lawrence told The Associated Press. “Inquiries are being made into how it was released.”
Lawrence declined to provide further details. It was not clear when the photo was taken nor where the gathering took place.
The grainy black and white photo shows what NBC says are some 190 Taliban militants standing in several rows near a vehicle in an open area of land. Gunsight-like brackets were positioned over the group in the photo.
NBC quoted one Army officer who was involved with the spy mission as saying, “we were so excited” that the group had been spotted and was in the sights of a U.S. drone. But the network quoted the officer, who was not identified, as saying that frustration soon set in after the officers realized they couldn’t bomb the funeral under the military’s rules of engagement.
NATO spokesman James Appathurai declined to comment on the incident.
“I haven’t seen the story and I can’t comment on U.S. rules of engagement,” he told a news conference in Brussels, Belgium.
Funerals not necessarily safe from battle
At the Pentagon, officials also declined to comment on what the photo depicts, when it was taken, and what the rules of engagement are in such situations.
Defense Department officials have said repeatedly that while they try to be mindful of religious and cultural sensitivities, they make no promises that such sites can always be avoided in battle because militants often seek cover in those and other civilian sites.
Mosques and similar locations have become frequent sites of violence in the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Suicide bombers have attacked at a number of mosques in the conflicts. And in one of the most infamous such incidents in Iraq, one of the largest cemeteries in the Muslim world — at Najaf — become a battleground two years ago as U.S. troops fought Shiite guerrillas hiding among graves and tunnels they had filled with weapons.
Taliban militants this year have been waging their bloodiest campaign of violence since their 2001 ouster from power in the U.S.-led invasion launched after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The U.S. military has previously used Predator drones with deadly effect, firing one missile into a Pakistani tribal area near the Afghan border in January in a failed bid to kill al-Qaida deputy Ayman al-Zawahri. The strike killed at least 13 civilians.