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Insight: Afghan move against U.S. special forces tied to abuse allegations

By Dylan Welch and Hamid Shalizi

KABUL (Reuters) - Two days after masked men burst in to Bibi Shereen's house and took her son away, villagers found his corpse - half-eaten by dogs - under a bridge in Afghanistan's volatile Wardak province.

"His fingers were cut off, he was badly beaten. His hands were swollen, his throat was slit," she told Reuters in her small mudbrick house.

"Why is the government not listening to our voices - why are they not stopping Americans from doing such things."

Shereen supplied no proof that Americans or Afghan forces working with them tortured and killed her son. Reuters was unable to independently verify her claims.

Such allegations have prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to bar U.S. special forces from Wardak province, a potentially risky move because it could give the Taliban more room to operate in a strategically important area close to the capital, Kabul.

The men who took Shereen's son had shone flashlights in her eyes and she could not identify them. But she said some spoke with southern Afghan accents, the same as those of the Afghans who work with U.S. special forces in her region. Most Afghans see night raids as a tactic of U.S. or U.S.-led forces.

Karzai's decision to bar U.S. special forces from Wardak could also complicate negotiations between the United States and Afghanistan over the presence of American troops once most NATO troops leave by the end of 2014.

Presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi told Reuters on Monday that there was evidence to back up the accusations of abuse.

"Our statements are based on documents and other evidence provided by provincial officials that say these operations are conducted by U.S. special forces and some Afghan individuals working for them," Faizi said. He declined to elaborate.

A U.S. defense official in Washington said a review in recent months in cooperation with Afghanistan's Defence Ministry and National Directorate of Security (NDS) intelligence agency found no involvement of Western forces in any abuse.

"No coalition forces have been involved in the alleged misconduct in Wardak province," said the official, who declined to be identified.

"ISAF and Afghanistan officials have agreed to a joint commission to look into the current concerns of citizens" in Wardak, he added, referring to NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also said on Monday the complaints against Afghans working for U.S. special forces would be investigated.

Reuters interviewed dozens of residents of Wardak and Afghan government officials who allege that Afghan men working with a small unit of U.S. special forces illegally detained, tortured and killed suspected insurgents. Wardak, just west of Kabul, is a gateway to the city.

In addition to claiming abuses, the Afghan government and military officials and Western officials said in extensive interviews that the allegations Of abuse had deepened mistrust between Karzai's administration and its American allies.

Karzai instructed presidential adviser and former member of parliament Shuja-ul-Mulk Jalala to travel to Wardak and report back to him on the abuse allegations.

Jalala said he was especially troubled by the fate of nine men who he believes, based on the testimony of people in the area, were detained by U.S. special forces and Afghans identified as translators.

The men - including a shopkeeper, a teacher, a driver and a local government employee - were detained at a military outpost used by a small group of elite American special forces in Wardak, some of their relatives said.

"NEVER SEE THE LIGHT AGAIN"

"People complain of being beaten, tortured by U.S. special forces on a daily basis," Jalala told Reuters in his Kabul office. He said while some accusations may be justified, others could be fabricated by villagers fearful of the Taliban.

Reuters spoke to the families of four of the nine missing men, and all said their men folk were taken to the special forces outpost by Afghan men identified as translators, often in the presence of U.S. soldiers.

"My brother, Aziz-ul Rahman, was on his way to bring firewood to the mosque, when the Americans and Afghans forced him to stop, dragged him out of his car and started beating and kicking him," Zabihullah, 22, from Nerkh village, told Reuters.

"Eventually they tossed him in an irrigation ditch near the village. He was badly injured, so we took him to the hospital and later to Kabul, but despite that he died," said Zabihullah, who said his brother had three children.

"The local government know that these bastards, these Afghans and Americans, torture, beat and arrest people all the time but they do nothing."

Other villagers who spoke to Reuters have said the "Afghan translators" spoke a mix of a foreign language, that they believed was English, and Pashto and variously wore traditional outfits or Afghan army and U.S. military uniforms.

"They carry big guns and drive quad bikes," said Nehmatullah, 24, from Deh Afghanan village close to the provincial capital of Maidan Shah.

It is uncommon for ISAF's Afghan translators to carry weapons, and when they do it is typically a sidearm for self-defence. Afghan translators working with coalition forces are also forbidden from wearing Afghan army uniforms.

"They come in the villages at all times of day and night and there are often two, three or four foreigners with them," Nehmatullah said.

Ashuqullah, 18, said he was detained along with his cousin, Mehrabuddin, by the same special forces group of Americans and Afghans.

"I was released but they kept Mehrabuddin. On the way to the base an Afghan man - maybe the Americans' translator - was slapping Mehrabuddin in his face and was telling him that he would never see the light again."

Mehrabuddin has been missing since then, his cousin said.

Some of the villagers who have experienced what they allege are the abuses of the Americans and Afghans, have since travelled to Kabul to complain directly to parliament.

Those complaints have been passed on to the Presidential Palace and some have reached Karzai, a palace official said.

A coalition staff officer familiar with the situation in Nerkh told Reuters that four of the nine missing men had been detained by Afghan and coalition personnel.

"Through various intelligence methods, these four had been positively identified as either active members or associated supporters of insurgent or criminal networks."

Coalition forces had no information regarding the other five men, and had "no record of any contact with them", the staff officer said.

VIDEOTAPE LINK

Not all of the abuse is alleged to have taken place at the U.S. special forces outpost.

Other allegations - these from Afghan authorities - focus on a grainy mobile phone video that people who have seen it say shows an Afghan man, identified by the government - without providing substantiation - as a man called Zakeria Kandahari.

ISAF and Afghan government officials said Kandahari previously worked with U.S. special forces in Herat and Kandahar provinces.

In the video, Kandahari is seen wearing a U.S. military uniform and repeatedly kicking an Afghan man.

A Western military official said the beating occurred at the offices of the country's NDS intelligence agency in Wardak's Nerkh district, not far from the special forces outpost.

The video was described to Reuters by Afghanistan's most senior general, army chief of staff Sher Mohammad Karimi, during an interview.

"There was a clip in which he was beating some civilian, he was in uniform and he was speaking Pashto," Karimi said.

"There was a guy, you can't see him, but he is speaking in good English, that clearly shows that someone was there from the international forces."

He said the English voice sounded to be that of a native speaker, most likely that of a North American.

The video quickly came to the attention of Defence Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, who sought an explanation from the head of foreign special forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Major General Raymond "Tony" Thomas.

In a statement to Reuters, ISAF said a review of the video determined that no coalition forces were present or involved in the incident.

The Ministry of Defence said it established that the Afghan man in the video was Kandahari and the Afghan government demanded that he been handed over.

Reuters has established through reliable sources that Kandahari was at the Nerkh special forces outpost when this request was made, but he later left. Reuters has been unable to locate Kandahari or to independently determine his role in any human rights abuses.

His departure from the outpost led to suspicion within the highest levels of the Afghan government that Kandahari was allowed to escape by his American special forces handlers, though they have no evidence to back up their suspicion.

ISAF special forces command declined to comment on whether Kandahari worked for them in Wardak.

When Mohammadi and the Presidential Palace were told that Kandahari had escaped, they were furious, a source in the palace said. That incident has led to Karzai's decision to demand that U.S. special forces leave Wardak within a fortnight.

(Additional reporting by Mustafa Andalib, David Alexander and Warren Strobel in WASHINGTON; Editing by Michael Georgy and Robert Birsel)

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