The US military says it has spoken to the four Marines seen in an Internet video urinating on three dead bodies. As the inquiry gathers pace, three-star General Thomas Waldhauser has been appointed to oversee the case.
The US Marine Corps has mobilized to investigate a video posted on Youtube and other Internet sites this week that appears to show four Marines urinating on bloodstained corpses in Afghanistan.
The Corps named three-star General Thomas Waldhauser as the lead investigator, whose duties will include deciding what charges, if any, the four soldiers should face. Waldhauser is to lead the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) probe into the event, though he named another three-star general, Steven Hummer, to lead an internal Marine Corps probe.
Military officials said on Friday that none of the suspects had been detained, although they had all been questioned by NCIS officials in connection with the video. The four soldiers were serving in a sniper unit of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines - a light infantry division based out of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina - when the video was filmed. At least two of the men were said to still be in that unit, which served in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province between March and September 2011.
"All four are currently in the US," an NCIS spokeswoman told the AFP news agency. "NCIS investigators are still tracking down information on the individual(s) who created and posted the video as well as initiating computer forensic techniques on the video itself."
As yet, the Pentagon has not confirmed the video's authenticity and it's not known who released the footage.
It seems likely that other individuals, like the person who filmed the video and any others who were present, would be brought into the investigation once identified.
Seeking to minimize the fallout from the video, not least with the prospect of peace talks with the Taliban becoming a reality, a senior US commander issued a letter to all personnel in the ISAF-led coalition fighting in Afghanistan, explicitly reiterating the need to respect the dead.
"Defiling, desecrating, mocking, photographing or filming for personal use insurgent dead constitutes a grave breach of the LOAC [laws of armed conflict], violates basic standards of human decency and can cause serious damage to relations with the Afghan government," Army Lt. Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, commander of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, wrote.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai described the images as "simply inhuman" and asked that the US launch a thorough investigation into the incident. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta telephoned Karzai to denounce the "deplorable" acts, and also acknowledged on a trip to Texas on Thursday that such images could "undermine the potential for reconciliation" in Afghanistan.
"But I think if we move quickly - if we conduct this investigation and hold these people accountable - we send a clear signal to the world that the US is not going to tolerate that kind of behavior and it doesn't represent the US as a whole," Panetta said.
Limited public reaction
The Taliban, whose fighters are believed to be the victims in the video, labeled the apparent acts as "barbaric," but also said the troops' behavior would not derail peace talks planned with Karzai's government.
NATO forces are to continue combat missions in Afghanistan until 2014
Fears that the incident might spark public protests in Afghanistan were yet to materialize, although news of the footage - which first appeared online early Wednesday - may not have spread through a country where most people have no electricity and Internet access is even more of a privilege.
In its statement announcing that General Waldhauser would lead the NCIS investigation into the video, the Marine Corps headquarters at the Pentagon also wrote that Waldhauser would "exercise his independent judgment" and decide how to handle "any allegations of wrongdoing."
As well as the behavior displayed in the video, the probe is expected to analyze conditions leading up to the apparent incident, Marine Corps training and education on the laws of warfare and the climate of discipline instilled by commanders responsible for the four Marines.
The NCIS is the US Navy's law enforcement agency, it said on Friday that the investigation was in its "very early stages."
Author: Mark Hallam (AFP, AP, Reuters)
Editor: Chuck Penfold