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No charges against 2 Marines in Afghan deaths

Two Marine Corps officers whose unit was accused of killing up to 19 Afghan civilians in 2007 will not face criminal charges, the corps said Friday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two Marine officers in a unit that was accused of killing as many as 19 Afghan civilians in 2007 will not face criminal charges, the military said Friday.

Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland, the commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Central Command, made the decision not to bring charges after reviewing the findings of a special tribunal that heard more than three weeks of testimony in January at Camp Lejuene.

The tribunal investigated allegations that as many as 19 Afghan civilians died when a unit of Lejeune-based Marine special operations troops opened fire after a car bomb targeted their convoy on March 4, 2007 in Nangahar Province.

The Marines said Helland determined the Marines in the convoy “acted appropriately and in accordance with the rules of engagement and tactics, techniques and procedures in place at the time in response to a complex attack.”

A message left Friday afternoon with Afghanistan’s embassy in Washington was not immediately returned.

Marine spokesman Lt. Col. Sean Gibson said the finding of the Court of Inquiry — some 12,000 pages — will not be released to the public. Helland wasn’t available for comment, he said.

It was the first time in more than 50 years the Marines empaneled a Court of Inquiry. The panel, comprised of two Marine Corps colonels and a lieutenant colonel, only considered the actions of the company’s commander, 38-year-old Maj. Fred C. Galvin of the Kansas City area, and a platoon leader, Capt. Vincent J. Noble, 29, of Philadelphia.

Gibson has said previously it was unlikely other Marines would be formally examined.

“Obviously, I am delighted about the findings,” said civilian attorney Knox Nunnally, who represented Noble before the Court of Inquiry. “From a legal standpoint, it was overwhelming that this was going to be the result.”

Officers to face administrative action
The Marines, however, said the court uncovered unspecified “administrative, manning and training issues” in its investigation, and those findings have been forwarded to the commander of the Marine Corps’s special operations command for action.

The Corps also said Galvin, Noble and a third officer — Capt. Robert Olsen — will face administrative actions. It was not immediately clear what those actions might be, but Galvin’s civilian attorney Mark Waple said he believed they would be related to a separate incident on March 9, 2007 that hasn’t been publicly discussed in detail.

Citing witness accounts, Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission concluded the Marines fired indiscriminately at vehicles and pedestrians in six different locations on a 10-mile stretch of road. But nearly a dozen Marines, who told the court they heard gunfire after the bombing, called the unit’s fire a disciplined response to a well-planned ambush.

Galvin and several other Marines were sent back to Camp Lejeune after the shooting. The rest of the unit was ordered to leave Afghanistan and returned to the ships of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit in the Persian Gulf.

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.

The Army brigade commander in charge of regular forces in the province publicly apologized for the shootings, saying he was ashamed of what had happened. But a week later, Marine Corps commandant Gen. James T. Conway said the Army officer shouldn’t have apologized because an investigation into what occurred was still ongoing.

“This is a concurrence that all the Marines on the patrol did the right thing,” Waple said.

Both Galvin and Noble are still based at Camp Lejeune and assigned to the Marine Corps special operations command; Galvin is the unit’s senior training officer and Noble is a platoon leader.