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U.N.: Massacre probe up to Afghans

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  

UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- Any further investigation into the reported massacre of Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan will be "in the hands of the Afghans," the United Nations said Wednesday.

Talk of an investigation into a mass grave in northern Afghanistan beyond the one a U.N. forensic team conducted in May is a tricky political subject between the United Nations and the new Afghan government.

"We realize that there's more than just the matter of an investigation here, also a national effort of reconciliation going on," said U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard, "and we stand prepared, ready to help in any effort the government may want to undertake."

Newsweek magazine reported this week 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 Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum.

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

In a written statement Tuesday, the United Nations said a preliminary investigation by a forensic team in May confirmed the existence of a mass grave in Dasht-e Leili and found that "the cause of death was consistent with death due to suffocation."

The statement said further investigation on its part would have to be accompanied by a witness protection program. A spokesman said the United Nations would not release the memo cited by Newsweek.

'Death by container'

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The story of a mass grave in the Dasht-e Leili area was first reported early this year by the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights, or PHR.

The captives surrendered to Northern Alliance forces during the battle for Kunduz in November 2001, the group said in a statement. At the time, the U.S.-led coalition was near the end of its campaign to topple the hardline Taliban regime supported by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The Newsweek report said 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, both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance had 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 the U.N. Security Council to establish a commission of inquiry to probe the mass grave site, work out just how many bodies are buried there and determine how they died.

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

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

Dig deeper

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

While the United States has kept its distance so far on the reports, Reeker's comments were the first indication the Bush administration was 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 an investigation.

-- CNN's Liz Neisloss at the United Nations and Marianne Bray in Hong Kong contributed to this report.


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