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Security contractors, Marines exchange accusations

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) American and Iraqi security guards for a North Carolina-based company were detained for three days in a military jail by U.S. Marines following a shooting incident last month, officials said Thursday, and some of the contractors complained they were abused while in custody.

The 16 Americans and three Iraqis, all employed by Zapata Engineering of Charlotte, N.C., are believed to have been the first private security personnel detained in Iraq since the war began two years ago. No charges have been filed and the American contractors are believed to have left Iraq, the military said.

It was not immediately clear why the shots were fired in Fallujah, which was once regarded as a focal point of Iraq's rampant insurgency before a U.S.-led offensive rooted out most militants in November. No casualties were reported from the shooting.

The Marines said the security contractors were detained after firing on Iraqi civilian cars and U.S. forces in Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad.

''Nineteen employees working for a contract security firm in Iraq were temporarily detained and questioned after firing on U.S. Marine positions in the city of Fallujah on Saturday,'' according to Marine spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan.

A Marines combat team reported receiving small arms fire from gunmen in several trucks and SUVs, Lapan said.

''Marines also witnessed passengers in the vehicles firing at and near civilian cars on the street,'' Lapan said.

''Three hours later, another Marine observation post was fired on by gunmen from vehicles matching the description of those involved in the earlier attack,'' Lapan said. ''Marines saw passengers in the vehicles firing out the windows.''

Spike strips on the road at a nearby observation post stopped the vehicles and Marines detained the contractors at a military detention facility at Camp Fallujah, just outside the city, before releasing them three days later.

Company president Manuel Zapata denied the allegations, saying the only shot fired by his workers was a warning blast after they noticed a vehicle following them.

A lawyer claiming to represent the contractors accused the military of mistreating the contractors, some of whom have said they were physically abused and humiliated while in custody.

''Marines put their knees on the backs of their necks and ripped off religious medallions,'' Mark Schopper, an attorney purportedly representing two of the detained workers, told The Charlotte Observer.

''They asked for attorneys, they asked for Amnesty International, they asked for the American Red Cross,'' he said. ''All three requests were denied.''

The Marines denied the abuse allegations.

''The Americans were segregated from the rest of the detainee population and like all security detainees, were treated humanely and respectfully,'' Lapan said.

He said the inquiry being conducted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service will look into the employees' claims along with the shooting incident.

''We continue to investigate this matter, to include the contractors' actions leading up to this incident, the actions of our Marines, as well as the contractors' allegations of abuse,'' Lapan told The Associated Press in an e-mail exchange. ''At this point, we have found nothing to substantiate those allegations.''

Lapan added that the military does not know why the security contractors fired their weapons, adding: ''They were detained because their actions posed a threat to coalition forces. I would say that constitutes a serious event.''

Zapata said his workers were shocked to be taken into custody by the military. ''You don't expect this when you are helping the armed services,'' he said.

Zapata has a $43.8 million contract with the U.S. military to manage ammunition disposal. The company has about 200 security workers and ammunition experts in Iraq.

An estimated 20,000 civilians are believed to be working for private defense contractors in Iraq. More than 200 have died there, including 13 employed by Moyock, N.C.-based Blackwater Security Consulting.

The insurgency has spawned a thriving private security industry, employing an estimated 20,000 civilians being paid annual salaries ranging from $120,000 to $300,000.

Many Iraqis resent some of the more high-profile security personnel, who speed along the country's highways in vehicles armed with automatic weapons. Senior government officials use them for their own personal protection.

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