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Afghanistan: U.S. Military Investigates Burning Of Taliban Bodies

Protests erupted in Kandahar and other Afghan cities following the allegations of Koran desecration in March (epa) The U.S. military has described as "repugnant" the alleged burning of the corpses of two Taliban fighters by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. The U.S. military says it has ordered an investigation into the alleged act after the airing of an Australian television report that claims to show U.S. soldiers burning the corpses. U.S. officials have said that if any wrongdoing is found, those responsible will be punished. The Afghan government has also said that it has launched is own probe into the alleged incident.

Prague, 21 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The video footage aired by Australia’s SBS Television network on 19 October allegedly shows U.S. soldiers burning the corpses of Taliban fighters on one of the hills above the village of Gondaz, north of Kandahar.

A day after the broadcast, U.S. Army Major General Jason Kamiya said at a news briefing in Kandahar that the U.S. military in Afghanistan had launched a criminal investigation into the report and would take "corrective action" should the allegation of body desecration prove to be true.

"If the involved service members are found guilty of misconduct, they will be punished according to U.S. military law," Kamiya said.

The SBS TV network reported on its website that the troops, allegedly members of the U.S. 173rd Airborne, said they burned the corpses for health reasons after they had been left out in the open for more than 24 hours. The soldiers had reportedly killed the fighters earlier in combat.

It added that the U.S. soldiers then broadcast a propaganda message on loudspeakers to Taliban fighters, taunting them to retrieve their dead and fight. One message reportedly said, "Attention Taliban, you are all cowardly dogs."

Another said: "You allowed your fighters to be laid down facing west [away from Mecca] and burned. You are too scared to retrieve their bodies. This just proves you are the lady boys we always believed you to be."

According to Muslim custom, bodies should be buried after being washed, prayed for, and wrapped in a special white cloth, all within 24 hours of death.

In Washington. U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack yesterday described the allegations as "very serious" and "very troublesome" and said that U.S. military personnel receive clear instructions to follow the Geneva Conventions.

"It is the policy of the United States to treat all [human] remains consistent with the Geneva Convention and with the utmost respect. Our military personnel receive clear instructions to this effect," McCormack said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai today expressed concern over the report shown on Australian TV.

Karim Rahimi, a presidential spokesman, told RFE/RL’s Afghan Service yesterday that the Defense Ministry has launched its own investigation into the alleged incident. "We are waiting for the result of the investigation," he said. "We believe that the bodies of humans, regardless of whether they are friends or enemies, should be seriously respected."

The United States is now concerned that the SBS documentary could also lead to a backlash. News agencies reported that U.S. embassies around the world have been told to explain that what people saw in the tape shown on the Australian TV network did not reflect the actions of most of the U.S. military or of U.S. values overall.

"There have been many reports about the inappropriate behaviour of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. There are negative reactions in the society I personally believe that the Taliban movement and Al-Qaeda will use such incidents for widespread propaganda." -- Afghan journalist

State Department spokesman McCormack said yesterday that the alleged actions by U.S. soldiers should be seen as isolated incidents. "We should not let the -- I'll say 'alleged' actions because there is an ongoing investigation here -- but the actions of a few to in any way obscure the work of our military and the values that that military represents," he said.

It is not clear when the results of the U.S. probe into the allegation of body burning by U.S. forces in Afghanistan will be concluded and made public.

Seyed Abdollah Faramarz, the editor in chief of the Kabul daily "Arman-e Melli," told RFE/RL that if the allegations of body desecration are proven, it will further erode the reputation of the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

"There have been many reports about the inappropriate behaviour of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. There are negative reactions in the society I personally believe that the Taliban movement and Al-Qaeda will use such incidents for widespread propaganda. The forces opposed to the government also use it [for their goals]. Such actions by U.S. soldiers will also lead to antigovernment feelings among people," Faramarz said.

The SBS report comes several months after allegations of Koran desecration at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba caused deadly riots in Afghanistan. Anti-U.S. demonstrations also took place in several other Muslim countries, including in Pakistan.

The U.S. image abroad has been already tarnished by reports of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghurayb Prison in Iraq and also detention without trial of suspected terrorists at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay.

In May, "The New York Times" published details of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.