Washington (AFP) July 10, 2009
The Bush administration repeatedly sought to block investigations into alleged killings of up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners by a US-backed Afghan warlord in 2001, The New York Times reported Friday.
Top US officials discouraged separate probes by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the State Department and the Pentagon into the mass killings because it was conducted by the forces of General Abdul Rashid Dostam, a warlord then on the Central Intelligence Agency's payroll, the Times said on its website.
Dostam's militia had worked closely with US Special Forces during the US-led invasion and was part of the Northern Alliance, which helped the United States topple the Taliban.
Washington was later concerned that an investigation could hurt Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who had the support of George W. Bush's administration, because Dostam served as a defense official in the fledgling government.
"At the White House, nobody said 'no' to an investigation, but nobody ever said 'yes, either," former US war crimes ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper told the newspaper. "The first reaction of everybody there was 'Oh, this is a sensitive issue. This is a touchy issue politically.'"
The new US administration has maintained frostier relations with Karzai, whose government is seen as corrupt and unpopular, although Obama has dispatched 21,000 fresh troops to fight a mounting Taliban-led insurgency ahead of August elections.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke, the special US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, have told Karzai they objected to the recent reinstatement of Dostam as military chief of staff, the Times said, citing a senior State Department official.
"We believe that anyone suspected of war crimes should be thoroughly investigated," the official added, hinting the Obama administration is open to an inquiry.
Dostam, whose alleged killings may have amounted to the biggest war crime in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion, was reinstated to his post last month after being suspended last year for allegedly threatening a political opponent at gunpoint.
But he remains in exile in Turkey, and US officials have pressed his sponsors there to delay his return to Afghanistan, the Times said, citing an official briefed on the matter.
The killings took place in late November 2001, shortly after the invasion that ousted Kabul's Taliban government.
Taliban prisoners captured by Dostam's forces after a major battle in northeastern Kunduz province were allegedly packed into shipping containers and left to suffocate, or were shot through the container walls, before being buried in mass graves.
Estimates on the number of people killed have ranged from several hundred to several thousand.
"President Obama must open a full and transparent criminal probe and prosecute any US officials found to have broken the law," said Nathaniel Raymond, a researcher for Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a group that found the mass grave site in the northwestern Dasht-i-Laili desert in January 2002.
"We stand ready to aid the US government in investigating this massacre. It is time for the cover-up to end," he added in a statement, saying the State Department official's comments indicate "a move toward full accountability."
PHR, which says as many as 2,000 surrendered Taliban fighters were killed, and the International Committee for the Red Cross were the first to call for an investigation, shortly after the incident reportedly took place.
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