The Army is investigating allegations that soldiers from a "rogue squad" may have illegally killed three Afghan civilians in Kandahar province earlier this year, U.S. military officials told NBC News.
Investigators are also looking into reports of illegal drug use and a conspiracy to cover up the alleged crimes, according to NBC News. The alleged ringleader of the group is in pretrial confinement, and seven others are under investigation.
Military officials say the alleged killings were committed separately between January and March by as many as three soldiers. In one of the killings, the soldiers allegedly placed an AK-47 and ammunition next to the body in an apparent effort to make it appear the victim was an insurgent, NBC reported. Five other soldiers in the squad apparently knew of the killings but failed to report it or were allegedly involved in an effort to cover up the crimes, according to military officials.
The killings came to light when a soldier who had recently joined the group was severely beaten after he told commanders that squad members were using illegal drugs, according to NBC. While hospitalized with his injuries, the soldier told investigators he had heard that several squad members had killed an innocent Afghan civilian. A subsequent investigation revealed that as many as three civilians may have been murdered.
The eight soldiers under investigation are part of the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division out of Fort Lewis, Wash., according to NBC.
The military would only officially confirm Thursday that it is investigating allegations that a number of American soldiers were responsible for the "unlawful deaths" of at least three Afghan civilians.
"There are also allegations of illegal drug use, assault and conspiracy," the military said in a statement, adding that while no charges had yet been laid, one soldier was in pretrial confinement.
The United States, which has the bulk of some 140,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, has been criticized by rights groups and Afghans for allegedly mistreating civilians and torturing suspected militant prisoners.