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Afghans Tell of Torture During Security Sweep

Villagers say a militia working for the U.S. went on a rampage while hunting Taliban.

October 30, 2003|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

DAI CHOPAN, Afghanistan — Villagers with broken limbs, deep cuts and severe bruises say Afghan militia fighters working as guides for U.S. troops went on a spree of looting, beatings and torture here during a military sweep last week.

The militiamen frequently guide the Americans on missions to search for Taliban and Al Qaeda guerrillas, wear U.S. military camouflage fatigues and carry assault rifles.

None of about 50 villagers who described the abuses in interviews, or who were questioned at an elders meeting, said U.S. forces witnessed the assaults or thefts during the search for Taliban guerrillas. A U.S. military spokesman said he had no reports of unprofessional conduct by militias operating under U.S. control.

But villagers here tell another story. Militiamen broke a woman's shoulder with a rifle butt and tortured her two adult sons until they blacked out, one son said in an interview Saturday. The other son had not regained consciousness.

Others described assaults and systematic looting by the militia fighters during a weeklong operation in Dai Chopan. The militiamen, loyal to warlords in Kandahar, about 70 miles southwest of here, complain that their commanders rarely pay them. They apparently were intent on seizing whatever they could from people living in what they regard as hostile territory. They allegedly stole cash, jewelry, watches, radios, three motorcycles -- even the mud-brick school's windows and doors -- before leaving with U.S. and Afghan troops Saturday.

"These people are robbing us, torturing us and beating us," said Sultan Mohammed, a village elder. "They are also taking innocent people to jail."

Dai Chopan is a remote village of about 5,000 people spread across several square miles in the barren mountains of southeastern Afghanistan's Zabol province. Taliban forces have launched repeated attacks in the area in recent months, killing aid workers and U.S. and Afghan soldiers.

Outside its dust-covered adobe farmhouses and small shops, burlap sacks bulging with freshly harvested almonds are piled like sandbag bunkers, waiting for shipment to market on the few trucks that venture this deep into Taliban territory.

Dai Chopan lies near the border between Zabol and Oruzgan provinces, both of which are Taliban strongholds and suspected hide-outs for the Taliban's Al Qaeda allies. Zabol was the scene of fierce battles between the Taliban and U.S.-led forces in August, the bloodiest month since the Taliban regime was overthrown in December 2001.

A senior Taliban commander, Maulvi Faizullah, announced last month that he had sent 300 reinforcements into mountainous Dai Chopan district, which surrounds the village, to join 1,000 Taliban fighters already here.

But residents insist that the village itself isn't a Taliban or Al Qaeda base, and said men wrongly arrested as Taliban suspects included a shopkeeper and the son of the government vaccination coordinator.

U.S. troops have conducted three search operations in the village over the past several months, said Mohammed, 50, the village elder. Each time, he said, they brought the militia fighters, who followed Americans' orders during house-to-house searches and arrests and -- each time -- beat and robbed villagers.

"They stand with the Americans, and when Americans leave an area, then the militias go by another route and rob the houses," Mohammed said.

The villagers said assaults and thefts are common when militia members from Kandahar join U.S. troops in raids on the region's villages, as they have for months. The militia members are loyal to Kandahar warlords Haji Granai, Haji Habibullah Jan and Toar Jan, whose brutality during Afghanistan's civil war in the early 1990s was among the factors that led Afghans to support the takeover by the hard-line Taliban.

Mohammed and other elders said the village had no quarrel with the new Afghan army's Central Corps force, which is dominated by ethnic Tajiks and other northern Afghans. But they regard the militia fighters, who share the same Pushtun blood as the villagers, as vicious criminals.

Afghan militia members "are placed under the [U.S.-led] coalition's tactical control from time to time" but are released to their normal militia commanders "upon completion of a predetermined action or time period," said Col. Rodney Davis, the American military's chief spokesman at Bagram air base, north of Kabul, the capital.

"The coalition enjoys a great relationship with the Afghan people," Davis added Monday in a brief e-mail reply to a request for a detailed interview on the villagers' allegations. "The coalition is reasonably sure -- virtually certain Afghan militia forces conduct themselves in a professional manner while operating under coalition control and we've had no reports to the contrary."

U.S. soldiers who spoke with a reporter in Dai Chopan did not identify their unit, or themselves, but an American military officer later said they were regular Army forces.

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