Marines accused of shooting and killing civilians after a suicide bombing in Afghanistan are under U.S. investigation, and their entire unit has been ordered to leave the country early, officials said Friday.
Army Maj. Gen. Francis H. Kearney III, head of Special Operations Command Central, responsible for special operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, ordered the unit of about 120 Marines out of Afghanistan and initiated an investigation into the March 4 incident, said Lt. Col. Lou Leto, spokesman at Kearney's command headquarters.
A spokesman for the Marine unit, Maj. Cliff Gilmore, said it is in the process of leaving Afghanistan but he declined to provide details on the timing and new location, citing a need to preserve security.
In the March 4 incident in Nangahar province, an explosives-rigged minivan crashed into a convoy of Marines that U.S. officials said also came under fire from gunmen. As many as 10 Afghans were killed and 34 wounded as the convoy made an escape. Injured Afghans said the Americans fired on civilian cars and pedestrians as they sped away.
U.S. military officials said militant gunmen shot at Marines and may have caused some of the civilian casualties.
Hundreds of Afghan men held an anti-U.S. demonstration afterward and President Hamid Karzai condemned the incident.
Leto, the spokesman at Special Operations Command Central headquarters in Tampa, Fla., said the Marines, after being ambushed, responded in a way that created "perceptions (that) have really damaged the relationship between the local population and this unit."
"The relationship you have with the local population while conducting counterinsurgency operations is very important, and because the perceptions damaged that, it probably degraded the (Marine) unit's ability to fulfill those kinds of missions," Leto added. "So the general felt it was best to move them out of that area."