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Panel completes Marine-Afghan shooting case

/ Source: The Associated Press

A special panel that heard testimony about a Marine shooting that killed up to 19 Afghan civilians delivered its report Friday, but it won't be made public.

The findings of the Court of Inquiry are classified, said Marine Corps spokesman Lt. Col. Sean Gibson. The court, a rarely used administrative hearing, was expected to recommend whether to file criminal charges against two officers who led the special operations unit accused in the March 2007 incident.

The officers' military attorneys aren't allowed to discuss the case, and their civilian lawyers didn't immediately return messages seeking comment Friday.

The report by a panel of Marine officers was filed with Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland, commander of Marine Corps Forces Central Command in Tampa, Fla. The general's attorneys will review the report and send it to Helland for final action, Gibson said. No timetable for a decision has been released.

Gibson said he didn't know whether any part of the report eventually would be made public. More than half the 47 witnesses testified at least partly in classified sessions during the 17-day hearing in January.

"Due to the inclusion of classified information, the overall report is classified," Gibson said.

Several members of the special operations unit testified that a car bomb targeted their convoy as they returned from a patrol to the Pakistan border. The Marines said the suicide bombing initiated a well-planned attack, and they fired back when fired upon.

But an Afghan human rights organization accused the Marines of firing indiscriminately at pedestrians and motorists along a 10-mile stretch of highway. It also called the suicide bombing an isolated event.

An Army report determined up to 19 Afghans were killed, but the officers' lawyers said they believed the death toll was no more than five.

Helland will decide whether to file charges against the company commander, Maj. Fred C. Galvin, and a platoon leader, Capt. Vincent J. Noble. Possible charges include failure to obey a lawful order and dereliction of duty.

Galvin and Noble were leading the first company deployed by the Marines' new special operations command.

Eight members of the company were sent back to Camp Lejeune after the incident. The rest of the company was ordered out of Afghanistan and sent to ships of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit in the Persian Gulf.

About two months after the shooting, Army Col. John Nicholson, then in charge of regular ground forces in Nangahar Province, publicly apologized for the shootings. Marine Corps commandant Gen. James T. Conway said the apology was premature.