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U.S. probe mass Taliban 'suffocations'

As many as 1,000 Taliban may have been suffocated, media reports say
As many as 1,000 Taliban may have been suffocated, media reports say  

By Marianne Bray
CNN Hong Kong

(CNN) -- Washington is looking into reports that hundreds of Taliban prisoners suffocated to death in northern Afghanistan and were dumped into mass graves after surrendering to U.S.-backed forces last year.

State Department spokesperson Philip Reeker said Monday the United States would look into the "circumstances surrounding the events that are reported," and seek accountability from Afghan authorities.

This week, U.S. magazine Newsweek reported that around 1,000 Taliban prisoners died after they had surrendered to the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance and were in the hands of warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum.

They died of suffocation in cramped container trucks while they were being taken from their Kunduz stronghold to Sheberghan prison, west of Mazar-e-Sharif, the magazine quoted a confidential U.N. memo as saying.

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The Newsweek report came in the wake of the Boston-based group Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) saying that it had found a fresh mass grave in Dasht-e Leili, an area where witnesses said the bodies of Taliban prisoners had been buried.

The captives surrendered to Northern Alliance forces at Kunduz in November 2001, the group said in a statement, when America was near the end of its campaign to topple the hardline Taliban regime linked to Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden.

'Death by container'

The Newsweek report said that U.S. forces likely had no advance knowledge of the killings and did not witness the prisoners being packed into the unventilated trucks.

According to Newsweek the Taliban and Northern Alliance have used "death by container" as a cheap means of mass murder for at least five years.

Citing the confidential U.N. memo, Newsweek said probes of the Dasht-e Leili graves "are sufficient to justify a fully-fledged criminal investigation."

Over the past six months, the PHR has urged that a commission of inquiry be set up under the auspices of the U.N. Security Council to probe the mass grave site, work out just how many bodies are buried there and determine exactly how they died.

It has also called on the United States, Afghan officials, and the United Nations to secure the site and start an investigation.

Dig deeper

Human rights groups say truckloads of Taliban corpses were dumped into a mass grave near Sheberghan prison
Human rights groups say truckloads of Taliban corpses were dumped into a mass grave near Sheberghan prison  

While America has kept its distance so far on the reports, Reeker's comments on Monday are the first indication that the U.S. government is prepared to dig deeper into the allegations.

"We are looking into the circumstances surrounding the events that are reported ... We've stressed and continue to stress to Afghan authorities the importance of investigating allegations of human rights violations and war crimes," Reeker told a press conference.

"We're going to continue to engage Afghan authorities on this matter in order to help seek accountability for any violations that may have occurred."

He declined to comment on whether he had any evidence of a mass grave at Dasht-e Leili and whether an outside body would take part in any investigation.

The PHR says it wants the probe to happen before evidence is destroyed, with the group's executive director, Leonard S. Rubenstein, saying he wants perpetrators of war crimes made accountable for their deeds.


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