KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghanistan's president on Wednesday condemned the actions of a group of U.S. soldiers charged with murdering three unarmed Afghans, charging they killed for entertainment after taking drugs.
It was Hamid Karzai's first public mention of the actions of five soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade who have been charged with murder and conspiracy in the deaths of the three men in southern Afghanistan.
Civilian deaths in Afghanistan have created tensions between his government and NATO forces.
Rolling Stone magazine published a series of graphic photos showing the soldiers posing next to the dead bodies. The German news magazine Der Spiegel had previously published three of them.
"They killed our youth for entertainment, they killed our elders for entertainment," Karzai said told thousands of new teachers at a graduation ceremony in the capital Kabul. The president said the American soldiers used opium and marijuana supplied by their Afghan translators.
"So during the night they smoked marijuana and opium and in the morning they went out to kill local people," he said, referring to the drugs mentioned in court documents on the case.
Rolling Stone posted 17 photos from a cache of about 150 photos linked to the ongoing war crimes probe involving the soldiers from an Olympia, Washington-based platoon.
Two of the photos show soldiers charged in the case – Spc. Jeremy Morlock and Pvt. 1st Class Andrew Holmes – crouching alongside an Afghan youth and lifting the victim's head by his hair. Two other photos show the body of the same Afghan youth, Gul Mudin, one of the victims in the case. Karzai said the boy was 15 years old.
Morlock, the first of the five to be court-martialed, was sentenced last week to 24 years in prison after pleading guilty to three counts of murder, as well as conspiracy and other charges. He said the killings were part of a deliberate plan to murder Afghan civilians.
Up to now, reaction to the photos has been muted in Afghanistan, and Karzai said earlier that incidents of Afghan civilian deaths at the hand of American soldiers should be seen as an exceptional case.
"Without a doubt the Americans are very good people, just like the Afghan people and other peoples of the world. They are not cruel people, they helped us with their own resources to develop our education and health sectors. They are working day and night to help us," Karzai also said during the speech Wednesday. But he added that he wanted Americans to know that U.S. soldiers "killed a 15-year-old boy and an old man in front of their families."
In northeastern Afghanistan, NATO announced on Wednesday that four of its service members were killed by insurgents, bringing Tuesday's total number of NATO casualties to six. The troops were killed in three separate incidents during an operation in the northeast province of Kunar, said British Maj. Tim James, a NATO spokesman. No other details about the deaths were released pending notification of their next of kin. Their deaths bring the number of coalition troops killed in Afghanistan this month to 33. So far this year 100 have been killed.
There has been intense fighting in the region for the last week.
On Sunday the Taliban abducted 40 police officers in Kunar, although elders in the Chapa Dara district managed to convince the insurgents to free about half of the officers.
The Taliban and other insurgent groups control large swaths of Nuristan, Kunar and other northeastern provinces near the Pakistani border. Insurgents retain safe havens in Pakistan's neighboring lawless tribal regions and cross the border into Afghanistan to attack NATO troops.
NATO also announced Wednesday the results of its review into a March 26 coalition airstrike in southwestern Afghanistan that killed four civilians. The strike targeted a suspected Taliban commander and his associates who NATO believed were traveling in two vehicles in the Nawzad district of Helmand province.
The coalition relied on video surveillance to determine the commander's location, according to a summary of NATO's report provided to reporters. A weapons system video shows two vehicles traveling together with motorcycles riding at the front and rear of the movement, but the Taliban commander was not in either vehicle, NATO concluded.
Three lower ranking Taliban fighters were killed in the first vehicle and four civilians were killed in the second vehicle. Three other civilians were injured in the blast, NATO said, and three children in the vehicles were unharmed.
"This is a deeply regrettable incident and our condolences go out to those affected by this tragedy," said Brig. Gen. Tim Zadalis, joint command director of air plans for the international coalition.
Though the number of civilian casualties attributed to NATO attacks have declined this year, accidental deaths continue to be a source of tension between the international force and the Afghan government.