US Army apology for photos of soldiers with Afghan body

Silhouette of US soldier, marine, Helmand, Oct 2009 The US are set to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July 2011

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The US Army has apologised for graphic photographs of US soldiers grinning over the corpses of Afghan civilians they had allegedly killed.

The photos published by Germany's Der Spiegel magazine were said to be among many seized by US Army investigators.

An army statement said the photographs were "repugnant" but were already being used as evidence in a court martial.

Afghan civilian deaths at the hands of foreign forces is a highly sensitive issue in Afghanistan.

These photographs are purported to have been taken by a "rogue" US Army unit in Afghanistan in 2010.

Such images are only going to exacerbate tensions between the Afghan government and the people on the one hand and the US-led coalition on the other, says the BBC's Paul Wood in Kabul.

US court martial

It is unclear exactly when the photographs published were taken but Der Spiegel says they are among 4,000 pictures and pieces of video they have obtained.

Some of the images show two soldiers kneeling over a body. They each hold the face of the dead man up to the camera by grabbing his hair and turning his head. One of the American soldiers is grinning.

The US Army said these photographs depict "actions repugnant to us as human beings and contrary to the standards and values of the United States Army".

"The actions portrayed in these photographs remain under investigation and are now the subject of ongoing US court-martial proceedings, in which the accused are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty," it added.

Soldiers who are convicted will be held accountable as appropriate, the army says.

Court sketch of Cpl Morlock (centre), investigating officer Col Thomas Molloy (right) and lawyer Michael Waddington (left) - 27 September 2010 Cpl Morlock has now agreed to plead guilty

Der Spiegel magazine says it has identified one of the soldiers in the photographs as Cpl Jeremy Morlock. He is one of five soldiers accused of the premeditated murder of three Afghan civilians earlier this year.

Cpl Morlock agreed to plead guilty in late February and get a shorter prison term if he testified against the other accused soldiers.

They deny the charges. Another seven soldiers from the same unit have been charged with conspiracy to cover up the alleged murders.

Cpl Morlock's court martial is due to resume on Wednesday.

The five accused of murder allegedly threw grenades and opened fire on civilians in unprovoked assaults, while the other seven are accused of dismembering the victims and collecting body parts.

Afghan anger

These photographs purportedly depict the alleged actions of a few "renegade" soldiers, but Afghan sensitivities about civilian deaths are running high after a series of incidents in which coalition forces have been blamed for accidentally killing civilians in bombing raids.

"This could inflame the situation. This is the last thing we expected at this time. Our position is very clear, stop killing civilians and this killing is not acceptable to the president, to the country and to the people of Afghanistan," an official from Afghanistan's National Security Council which deals with the US army, who wished to remain unnamed, told the BBC's Bilal Sarwary.

A record number of civilians were killed in Afghanistan last year. More than 2,700 civilians were killed in 2010 - up 15% on the year before.

A UN report on civilian deaths said that the Taliban were responsible for 75% of all deaths. The proportion killed by Afghan and Nato forces fell, accounting for 16% of civilian deaths.

Correspondents say that the deaths of Afghans by foreign hands provokes greater outrage than killings by the Taliban.

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