U.N.: Afghan graves disturbed; physicians demand probe

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 12, 2008 

Physicians for Human Rights Friday demanded an investigation in both Afghanistan and the U.S. of a McClatchy news report that a U.S.-allied warlord may have removed evidence from a mass gravesite in northern Afghanistan.

A United Nations official in Kabul, the Afghan capital, Friday confirmed to The Associated Press that the site had been "disturbed." A U.N. spokesman in New York, Farhan Haq, said Friday evening that, "We're certainly opposed to any disturbance of the gravesite."

Asked about PHR's call for an investigation, Haq said that the U.N. team in Afghanistan would have to examine the matter before he could comment.

The gravesite area, which a previous State Department cable said could hold as many as 2,000 bodies, was dug up during the past year. A U.N.-sponsored PHR team discovered two large pits in the grave area during a June-July trip to Afghanistan, and a McClatchy reporter found three new holes there last month.

"Removing evidence of an alleged mass atrocity is itself a war crime and must be investigated," PHR's chief executive officer, Frank Donaghue said in a statement Friday. "The Afghan Government, with the support of the U.N. and the international community, must move quickly to protect the site."

However, without security assistance from NATO troops in Afghanistan, who're commanded by a U.S. general, the government in Kabul won't be able to secure the gravesite, Donaghue said in an interview with McClatchy Friday evening.

Donaghue said that a NATO-controlled team was based less than three miles from the site, and that securing it is "something the ... team could do tonight if they wanted to."

The U.N. in Afghanistan had acknowledged to McClatchy that it knew of the digging — reportedly by backhoes or bulldozers, or maybe both — but said in statement that it previously had decided not to publicly acknowledge it.

"You're right that we don't always make public statements, but that's because we're in a conflict environment and have to weigh up whether doing so will stall chances of progress against impunity in other areas or put lives at risk," said the statement, released this week by U.N. spokesman Adrian Edwards in Kabul.

The issue of evidence being removed from the gravesite is particularly sensitive because the man who some local Afghan officials accuse of being behind it, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a feared warlord and a U.S. ally in the war against the Taliban and al Qaida.

It was Dostum's militia that reportedly stuffed thousands of suspected Taliban and al Qaida fighters into metal shipping containers in late 2001, when CIA officers and U.S. Special Forces were on the scene advising Dostum, and transported them to a prison in Sheberghan. When the containers arrived, many of the captives inside had suffocated or been shot, and Dostum's men then allegedly buried their corpses in the nearby Dasht-e-Leili desert.

Local Afghan officials told McClatchy that they thought Dostum wanted to destroy the evidence of the mass graves because of recent political problems that he feared could make him more vulnerable to prosecution.

Dostum, who's been in Turkey, was unavailable for comment.

Earlier this month, a Turkish newspaper said Dostum was in Turkey seeking a possible asylum deal, presumably because of a reported drunken assault that he and his men made on a rival leader in February.

Afghan officials wouldn't comment on the report. Dostum, speaking with journalists in Turkey, swatted away the idea that he was being barred from Afghanistan and said he could return whenever he wanted.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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