Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — Pakistan's army chief Friday ordered an investigation of a video circulating on the Internet that purportedly shows the firing squad execution of six blindfolded Pakistanis by men dressed in what appear to be Pakistani army uniforms.
The call for the investigation by the army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, reverses the army's initial reaction when the video first surfaced last month. At that time, military authorities called the video fake and denied that any Pakistani soldier could be involved in extrajudicial killings.
The 5-minute, 39-second video shows six men, blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs, being led through a thicket of trees to an open patch near a wall, where they are lined up shoulder-to-shoulder by men in military fatigues and carrying automatic rifles. After a unifromed man who appears to be the commander says, "OK," the apparent soldiers fire a volley of shots at the men.
As some of the men cry out in pain and fall to the ground, one of the armed men walks up and fires several more rounds into their bodies.
It is not known where on the Internet the video was first posted. Human rights activists say they believe it was taken by one of the uniformed men with a cellphone in northwestern Pakistan's restive Swat Valley, though it is not known when.
A news release issued by the Pakistani army stated that Kayani had formed a "board of inquiry to establish the true identity of uniformed personnel and the veracity of the video footage." The board will comprise a Pakistani major general and two or three senior officers.
According to the statement, Kayani expressed "his determination to take strictest possible disciplinary action against the perpetrators, if identified to be soldiers of the Pakistani army." Kayani also warned against reaching hasty conclusions about soldiers' involvement, noting that militants have in the past disguised themselves as soldiers "to malign the Pakistani army" while carrying out terrorist attacks.
Allegations of extrajudicial killings by Pakistani soldiers have dogged the military for more than a year. In a report released in April, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan alleged that 249 suspected summary executions had been carried out by Pakistani security forces between July 30, 2009, and March 22, mostly in the Swat Valley.
Last summer, the Pakistani army launched a major offensive that routed Taliban commanders and militants who had taken over the Swat Valley and an adjacent district called Buner, just 60 miles from Islamabad, the nation's capital. The Pakistani army has flatly denied allegations of any human rights violations during or after the Swat offensive. If it investigated any of those allegations, it kept those inquiries and the findings secret.
"I think this was a very prudent and wise decision," Islamabad-based security analyst Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general, said of the new investigation. "We are fighting a counterinsurgency in which it's very important to have the full support of the Pakistani people…. The point is to come clean and take action."
Masood said the uniforms and the G-3 rifles used by the men seen in the video appeared to be standard issue for Pakistani soldiers.
Mehdi Hasan, chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said he believed the video was genuine. "They were in uniform, and they had rifles which Pakistani soldiers use. I don't think it was fake."
After the video surfaced, Kayani and the military came under pressure from the United States to investigate. American law bars the delivery of aid to any foreign military that has committed gross human rights abuses.
"We take all allegations of human rights violations seriously," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said late last month. "Human rights and the issue of extrajudicial killings has been a part of our ongoing conversation with Pakistan."
Before the announcement Friday, Pakistani television and newspapers had largely ignored the video, a reflection of the reluctance to rankle the country's powerful military establishment. In Swat, when military officers learned that a local photojournalist had the video on his cellphone, they ordered him to delete it and told other journalists to refrain from airing the video, according to a source who asked not to be named for fear of retribution.