NEW YORK The United States reversed course on its account of a botched Special Operations raid in February that killed five civilians, including three women, after an investigative report said there were signs of evidence tampering, according to media reports.
The American-led military command in Kabul admitted late on Sunday that its forces had, in fact, killed the women during the nighttime raid.
The admission immediately raised questions about what really happened during the Feb. 12 operation and what falsehoods followed including a new report that Special Operations forces dug bullets out of the bodies of the women to hide the true nature of their deaths.
A NATO official also told The New York Times in Kabul on Sunday that an Afghan-led team of investigators had found signs of evidence tampering at the scene, including the removal of bullets from walls near where the women were killed.
The disclosure could not come at a worse moment for the American military, The Times said. NATO officials are struggling to contain fallout from a series of tirades against the foreign military presence by the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who has also railed against the killing of civilians by Western forces.
NATO military officials had already admitted killing two innocent civilians a district prosecutor and local police chief during the raid, on a home near Gardez in southeastern Afghanistan. The two men were shot to death when they came out of their home, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, to investigate.
Three women also died that night at the same home: One was a pregnant mother of 10 and another was a pregnant mother of six, according to reports. NATO military officials had suggested that the women were actually stabbed to death or had died by some other means hours before the raid, an explanation that implied that family members or others at the home might have killed them.
Survivors of the raid called that explanation a cover-up and insisted that American forces killed the women. Relatives and family friends said the bloody raid followed a party in honour of the birth of a grandson of the owner of the house.
On Sunday night the American-led military command in Kabul issued a statement admitting that international forces were responsible for the deaths of the women. Officials have previously stated that American Special Operations forces and Afghan forces conducted the operation.
The statement said that investigators could not conclusively determine how or when the women died, due to lack of forensic evidence but that they had nonetheless concluded that the women were accidentally killed as a result of the joint force firing at the men.
We deeply regret the outcome of this operation, accept responsibility for our actions that night, and know that this loss will be felt forever by the families, said Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay, a spokesman for the NATO command in Kabul.
The admission was an abrupt about-face. In a statement soon after the raid, NATO had claimed that its raiding party had stumbled upon the bodies of three women who had been tied up, gagged and killed and hidden in a room in the house. Military officials had also said later that the bodies showed signs of puncture and slashing wounds from a knife, and that the women appeared to have been killed several hours before the raid.