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Germany

Questions remain as Kunduz trial continues

Who was responsible for the deaths of more than 100 civilians in Afghanistan? Video footage from American jets may shed light on the case as a court in Bonn deliberates the bombing of two tanker trucks.

Should the German commander Colonel Georg Klein, who was in charge of the operation at the time, have known that civilians had gathered around fuel tankers which had been stolen by the Taliban? Yes, according to activists from various peace-initiatives, demonstrating in front of the Bonn District court (30.10.2012). "Klein has violated international law," said Eymen Nahali, member of the left-wing anti-capitalist group, Aktion Bonn. "He is a mass murderer and war criminal."

Protesters carried "wanted posters" with Klein's photo and set up small signs with the names and ages of the victims of the Kunduz bombing. According to police estimates, about 100 - 150 anti-war activists gathered for the rally.

Bombardment with civilian casualties

Lawyers Karim Popal and Peter Derleder represent the families of the victims. In civil proceedings at the Bonn district court, Popal said that a father who had lost two sons and a widow with six children who had lost her husband are suing for damages. Together the plaintiffs are seeking combined compensation of 90,000 euros ($123,000) from Klein's employer, the German Ministry of Defense.

Bombed remains of a truck in Afghanistan, archival photo from the Sept. 2009 bombing in Kunduz Photo: EPA/JAWED KARGAR dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Children and young people also died in the attack

On September 3, 2009, Taliban fighters kidnapped two fuel tankers and killed a driver at a fake checkpoint. A few hours later, the stolen tankers got stuck in a dry river bed just a few kilometers from the German NATO camp in Kunduz. Shortly before 2 a.m. local time on September 4, Colonel Klein gave the command for the bombardment. In the subsequent attack, between 91 - 137 civilians died.

"Mr. Klein acted incorrectly. He made the decision himself, and he also saw the civilian population," said Popal. "But he deliberately and intentionally gave the command to attack."

No 'show of force'

Two American pilots had been circling the scene for hours to get an overview of the situation. Repeatedly the pilots suggested a scare tactic of flying low over the tankers to chase the civilians away. But Klein declined this "show of force."

The Ministry of Defense, represented by Mark Zimmer, pleaded for the case to be dismissed at the opening of the trial in March 2013. According to Zimmer, the ministry is not the right target. "In our case Colonel Klein was not acting solely on behalf of the Federal Republic of Germany, but rather, he was involved in a NATO system. Therefore his superiors were NATO officers," Zimmer told DW prior to the start of the trial. The court, however, did not accept this argument.

Answers through aerial photographs?

Portrait of the lawyer for the victims, Karim Popal Photo: Oliver Berg/dpa

Karim Popal, representing victims' familes, said Klein must have known that civilians were present

Now video footage from the American jets should shed some light. In the infrared images, people appear as small black dots approaching and leaving the fuel tankers and moving between them. Should Colonel Klein have recognized in these photos that these were civilians siphoning gasoline?

The defense disputes the footage. Zimmer calls it a "diffuse image," and according to experts from the German federal government, neither civilians nor Taliban fighters are clearly recognizable.

For the plaintiffs, however, the imagery shows clear patterns of movement to indicate that civilians were approaching the tankers with canisters, then returning to their villages.

'Taliban work in small groups'

Toward the end of the proceedings, Thomas Ruttig, an expert on Afghanistan, explained the behavior of the Afghan rural population and the Taliban. Ruttig stressed that during Ramadan, when the attack occurred, it is not uncommon for people to remain out until late at night. He added that free fuel would have been a generous gift for the impoverished villagers - which is what might have lured them to the tankers.

Very seldom, Ruttig added, do more than 10 Taliban fighters at a time take part in a mission. On the aerial photographs many black dots are visible. "Someone familiar with the subject should know that such a large group can't just be made up of Taliban," Ruttig told DW after the trial. "For me, the back and forth looked much more like a frenzied flock of chickens."

The next trial date is set for December 11. At that point either the case will be dismissed, said court spokesman Philip Prietze, or the judges will find that Colonel Klein may have acted wrongly and will want to sift through additional evidence and witnesses.

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