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UN Expert to Probe Killings by US Troops

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EDITH M. LEDERER | October 27, 2007 12:21 AM EST | AP

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UNITED NATIONS — A United Nations expert said Friday he plans to study whether members of the U.S. military or government contractors such as Blackwater USA violate international law when they kill civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Philip Alston, a professor at New York University law school who has been an adviser to the UN's commission on human rights since 2004, said the U.S. had invited him to look into the issue. He said he would begin work in the spring and did not yet have an itinerary or list of people to interview.

"I am very interested in questions relating to military justice ... in other words, the response to alleged extrajudicial executions by members of the U.S. military, particularly in places like Iraq and Afghanistan," he told a news conference after briefing the General Assembly's human rights committee.

U.S. service members in Iraq have faced prosecution under American law over the killings of 24 civilians by Marines in Haditha and the rape and killing of a 14-year-old girl and the slaying of her family south of Baghdad. However, Iraqis have accused the American soldiers of other unnecessary killings or abuse which has not been prosecuted.

At least 700 civilians have died in Afghanistan due to the fighting this year. About half of those deaths were caused by insurgents and the rest resulted from U.S. or NATO military action, often because of air strikes hitting civilian homes, according to an Associated Press tally based on numbers from Afghan and Western officials.

The deaths have incited resentment against U.S. forces and claims of illegal killings.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is calling for the U.S. and NATO to cut back on airstrikes in the battle against Taliban and al-Qaida militants, saying too many civilians have been killed.

Karzai told the U.S. news program "60 Minutes" for a story scheduled to air Sunday night that six years after the U.S.-led invasion the Afghan people "cannot comprehend as to why there is still a need for air power."

Alston is an independent expert who reports to the U.N. Human Rights Council. His reports can draw attention to an issue. But it would be up to U.N. bodies, such as the Security Council, whether to take action.

Alston said actions by government security contractors are "clearly an issue I would want to look at insofar as executions are involved, and obviously in the Blackwater case recently they are."

The Iraqi government has demanded Blackwater USA's expulsion within six months and $8 million compensation for each of the 17 victims of a Sept. 16 shooting by the company's security contractors. The government insists there was no provocation but the company claims the bodyguards were responding to gunfire.