Four U.S. contractors for the company formerly known as Blackwater were not authorized to carry weapons when they were involved in a deadly shooting in Afghanistan this month, the U.S. military said Tuesday.
The men — accused of opening fire on a vehicle in the capital on May 5 — have charged that their employer, now called Xe, issued them guns in breach of the company's contract with the military. One Afghan was killed in the shooting, and two others wounded.
Xe declined to comment on the weapons or the contract.
The men were all back in the United States or en route by Tuesday, an attorney for the contractors told The Associated Press. Daniel J. Callahan said two of them "escaped" from the company in Kabul and took a flight out of the country late Saturday.
"Two of them snuck out under the cover of darkness," said Callahan, a lawyer based in California. "The other two, according to plans, should also be out of Blackwater's grasp."
Callahan said military officials told him there was an investigation into the shooting but no order that the men stay in Afghanistan, so they decided to leave on their own. Though he previously accused Xe of holding the contractors captive, Callahan said Tuesday that the company had simply told them to stay put.
Xe has said the men were not detained but were told not to leave the country without the approval and direction of the Department of Defense.
Conditions of contract
The military told the AP that the men were operating under a contract that did not allow them to carry guns.
"By the terms of the contract, they were not authorized to carry weapons," said Lt. Col. Chris Kubik, a U.S. military spokesman. Kubik said the military had not given guns to the men and that he did not know if the weapons were issued by Xe or privately owned.
Anne Tyrrell, a spokeswoman for the Moycock, North Carolina-based company, declined to comment Tuesday on the terms of this specific contract or say if the company issued guns to the men. She had said previously that all Xe contractors were not banned from carrying guns in the country, but that the permission depended on the job description.
Blackwater was involved in a 2007 shooting in a busy square in Baghdad that left as many as 17 Iraqi civilians dead and led to the end of its Baghdad operations this month.
The industry has become more cautious since the shooting, but private contractors still provide a host of services in war zones.
In Afghanistan, contract employees — often former military or police — train troops along with providing security for diplomats and other international workers, technical expertise and logistical support. Though there have been no incidents in Afghanistan on par with the Iraq shooting, companies have been dogged by allegations of corruption and heavy-handedness.
The men in question were contracted to provide military training and as such "were authorized to handle weapons in the course of their duties," but were not allowed to have weapons with them at other times, Kubik said.
"Obviously, in this instance they were not training Afghan soldiers," Kubik said. He added that the weapons they fired did not match any that would have been used in training and he had no information that would suggest the contractors were on their way to or from a training when the shooting occurred, at about 9 p.m.
Termination of contractors
Tyrrell has said the men were fired after the incident for not following the terms of their contract, without saying what regulation or policy they had violated. She did not say if this meant they were carrying privately purchased weapons. She said Tuesday she would make no further comments, citing the ongoing military investigation.
Callahan said the four Americans are being scapegoated by Xe, which issued them the guns. He said the guns were AK-47s distributed by Xe after they were taken from Afghan insurgents.
On May 5, the contractors got into a car accident on a major Kabul road, according to a military statement issued two days later.
"While stopped for the vehicle accident, the contractors were approached by a vehicle in a manner the contractors felt threatening" and opened fire, the statement said.
Callahan — the attorney who is also representing families of four Blackwater employees killed in Iraq in 2004 who sued the security company — said the contractors were traveling in two vehicles when a car hit the first one. They had gotten out to give first aid when another car made a U-turn and drove toward them, he said.
"These four men drew their guns and shot," Callahan said.
An Afghan dies
The brother of one of the wounded Afghans has said the car was full of shopkeepers heading home from work who misinterpreted one of the Americans hitting the car as an order to move. Bullets started hitting the back of the Toyota Corolla as it drove off. A passenger was hit in the stomach and died two days later, said Shah Agha, whose brother Farid was driving the car. Farid was shot in the hand and another person was injured outside the vehicle, Agha said.
Kubik said he did not have details about the contractors' location, but that the military's contract also stipulates that Paravant, the Xe subsidiary responsible for the training, "is required or obligated to keep contractors in country who are under investigation for this sort of incident."
The investigation is ongoing, he said.