UNITED NATIONS -- A new UN report says that four out of the five UN employees who died during an attack on their compound in Kabul in October 2009 may have been killed by Afghan security forces who mistook them for Taliban insurgents.
The report does not make a definite conclusion but says there is sufficient forensic and other evidence to suggest the possibility that the UN employees may have been killed by friendly fire in the confusion that ensued after three attackers in Afghan police uniforms opened fire in the compound.
"The positions [indicate] that they were trying to escape and they were caught in those circumstances," Susana Malcorra, the UN's head of peacekeeping field support, told reporters. "So it is -- without having total proof -- the sense is that it was friendly fire."
The UN had previously insisted that only one of the four -- a U.S. citizen -- might have been killed by Afghan security forces.
Details of the incident have been shrouded in secrecy because of alleged lapses of UN security in Kabul and conflicting reports of what actually happened.
The UN report has not been made public.
Suspected Taliban suicide bombers dressed in Afghan police uniforms attacked the UN compound in Kabul on October 28. Four UN employees died during the resulting gun battle, along with three Afghan security forces and the three attackers. A fifth UN employee died in a fire set by the assailants.
Confusion A Decisive Factor
Malcorra told reporters that coordination between Afghan security forces and the UN was difficult during the attack because of the lack of UN staff who speak Pashto or Dari. The report says communication issues have long been a problem in the country.
Malcorra cited confusion as a decisive factor in what transpired that October day. That, and the fact that the attackers and Afghan police used the same weapons, she said, make it impossible to say with certainty who actually fired the bullets that killed the four UN workers.
The death of the American staffer triggered the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to initiate its own investigation into the attack. The results of the probe have not been made public. But the dead American -- Louis Maxwell -- is already regarded as a hero at the UN for his attempts to prevent the attackers from entering the UN guesthouse.
The UN is sensitive to the details surrounding Maxwell's death. Last week, a senior UN official called his death a "murder," but at the April 26 press briefing Malcorra played down that suggestion, saying it wasn't the best way to describe his death.
"Maxwell was killed without having exact understanding of what happened. What happened happened in very difficult circumstances. This was an attack by the Taliban," she said. "So we need to be very aware of that so that we understand what took place a little better and [in] a little bit more balanced [manner]. And, of course, we need to pursue this with the Afghan authorities."
The UN report was given to the Afghan authorities on April 25; the UN says it expects Kabul will soon launch its own investigation into the incident.
Following the attack, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked Afghan President Hamid Karzai to cooperate in the UN's investigation, and the report notes that cooperation has gone smoothly.
In the aftermath of the attack, the UN withdrew 600 of its 1,100 employees in Afghanistan until better security measures could be implemented.
Some have since returned to the country, but many left for good. As a result, the vacancy rate for UN professional-level jobs in Afghanistan remains high.