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Marine unit ordered to leave Afghanistan

Members accused of killing civilians after bomb attack

An Afghan police officer walked yesterday near the wreckage of a suicide attacker's vehicle after it exploded east of Kabul. Aside from the driver, no other casualties were reported. (RAHMAT GUL/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON -- Marines accused of shooting and killing civilians after a suicide bombing in Afghanistan are under US investigation and their entire unit has been ordered to leave the country, officials said yesterday.

Army Major General Francis H. Kearney III, head of Special Operations Command Central, ordered the unit of about 120 Marines out of Afghanistan and initiated an investigation into the shootings, said Lieutenant Colonel Lou Leto, spokesman at Kearney's command headquarters in Tampa.

It is highly unusual for any combat unit, either special operations or conventional, to have its mission cut short.

A spokesman for the Marine unit, Major Cliff Gilmore, said it is taking steps to leave Afghanistan, but he declined to provide details on the timing and new location, citing a need for security.

On March 4 in Nangahar province, an explosives-rigged minivan crashed into a convoy of Marines that US officials said also came under fire from gunmen. As many as 10 Afghans were killed and 34 wounded as the convoy made an escape.

Injured Afghans said the Americans fired on civilian cars and pedestrians as they sped away. But US military officials said militant gunmen shot at Marines and may have caused some of the civilian casualties.

President Hamid Karzai condemned the event , which was one among several involving US forces in which civilians were killed and injured.

Leto, the spokesman at Special Operations Command Central headquarters, said the Marines, after being ambushed, responded in a way that created "perceptions [that] have really damaged the relationship between the local population and this unit."

Therefore, he said, "the general felt it was best to move them out of that area."

Gilmore said the Marine company would complete its overseas deployment with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is the larger unit it sailed with from Camp Lejeune, N.C., in January, but it will no longer operate in Afghanistan.

Of the four Marine Special Operations Command companies that have been established since the command was created in February 2006, the one ordered out of Afghanistan was the first to deploy abroad, Gilmore said. By September 2008 there are to be nine companies operating as part of two special operations battalions, he said.

In a separate development yesterday, Afghan forces launched what appeared to be their biggest independent operation ever against the Taliban, killing as many as 69 militants in fighting in the south that also left seven police dead, officials said yesterday.

Elsewhere in southern Afghanistan, suspected Taliban militants ambushed a convoy of trucks heading to a NATO base, killing 13 Afghans, an official said.

Violence in Afghanistan has spiked over the last year, with Taliban militants setting off a record number of roadside and suicide attacks. US and NATO officials have said they expect violence to again increase this spring and summer.