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Evelyn Leopold

Evelyn Leopold

Posted: April 26, 2010 05:56 PM

Report: Afghans May Have Killed Four UN staff in "Friendly Fire"

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UNITED NATIONS - Afghan security forces probably killed an American security officer and three other UN staff in a "friendly fire," exchange during a fog of warfare, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reported.

While leaks from a UN Board of Inquiry report made clear the UN security officer, Louis Maxwell of Miami, was shot by Afghan police, the deaths of three other staff by Afghans were a new disclosure. A fifth staff member burned in a fire set by the Taliban during the assault.

The UN staffers were killed during a dawn attack on the Bakhtar guest house in Kabul, on October 28, 2009, which also housed about 20 U.N. election officials. The Afghan government initially said the Taliban, which took responsibility for the attack, had killed Maxwell. Three Taliban attackers blew themselves up.

"The report suggests the possibility that a UN staff member Close Protection, Officer Louis Maxwell, may have been killed by Afghan security forces," Ban's statement said. "The report was not able to determine who fired the shots that killed the three other United Nations staff members though it leaves open the possibility that they also may have been killed by friendly fire." .

The secretary-general's office refused to release the report, written by commission headed by Andrew Hughes, a former Australian and UN police official, but said it would be followed up in Kabul where Interior Ministry officials met UN officials on Sunday. The FBI is also investigating and the chief UN security officer, Gregory Starr, an American, was going to Kabul next week to follow up. The UN report was an internal investigation and has no judicial standing.

Ban's statement described the "confused situation at the Bakhtar guest house with the attackers and responding security personnel both dressed in Afghan police uniforms and a fire raging through the compound."

Susana Malcorra, a UN undersecretary-general for peacekeeping, told reporters on Monday that there was "a strong sense" that Maxwell was shot by Afghan security forces while he was defending the guesthouse, allowing many other UN staff to exit through a rear door.

Sense of "friendly fire"

Malcorra said Taliban attackers were dressed as Afghan police, which made it difficult to ascertain who was shooting whom. But she said that Maxwell was killed after he fell from a roof, another staff died in a fire that ensued from grenades. As for the other three staff, "the sense is that it was friendly fire," she said.

Another disclosure by Malcorra was that forensic evidence showed Maxwell was not shot at close range. An amateur video obtained by Germany's Stern magazine showed Maxwell shot as he was talking to Afghan guards, none of whom moved to help him. It also took 90 minutes for Afghan security forces to arrive.

Maxwell, 27, a father of two and a former Navy man, "died protecting his colleagues, many of whom are alive today because of heroic actions," Ban said in his statement. Malcorra said he held off the attackers so many could escape through a back door.

At the same time the United Nations announced it withdrew some staff members from the southern city of Kandahar to protect them from mounting violence ahead of a planned U.S.-led military offensive. Some 200 Afghans working for the United Nations in Kandahar have been told to stay home.

The timing of last October's attack was suspicious since it came shortly before a second round of elections, which were then canceled after President Hamid Karzai's rival, Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew from the race, saying he did not believe new polls would be fair.

The UN had criticized the first round as riddled with fraud and the attack left the world body nearly paralyzed in Kabul. (More recently Karzai blamed a former UN official, Peter Galbraith, who had first raised the specter of stuffed ballots, as responsible for the fraud. Ironically, it was Karzai's first acknowledgment that there had been fraud.)

The other questions Malcorra and Ban's office did not answer is why the Afghan police, as shown in the video, did not stir or move to help Maxwell when he was shot in front of them. He was not holding a gun or threatening anyone. Was he executed? Were the Afghan forces undisciplined and firing indiscriminately? Or did Maxwell fire at them earlier, believing they were insurgents? And why did the UN not release the report?
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Police help injured man after attack on UN guesthouse
AFP-Getty Images