War Crimes: Digging Up The Truth

The United Nations will send a forensics team to a mass grave at Dasht-e Leili in north Afghanistan where hundreds of captured Taliban were buried last December after suffocating in airless container trucks en route to prison (NEWSWEEK, Aug. 26). After initially shunning an investigation, Lakhdar Brahimi, the top U.N. representative in Kabul, said Hamid Karzai's provisional administration and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission agreed to proceed. "I think it is fairly certain that a large number of people died in suspicious circumstances," Brahimi told the Security Council last week. The two leading warlords in the region, Abdul Rashid Dostum, and Atta Mohammed, denounced NEWSWEEK's report as "sensationalistic, inaccurate and false," but acknowledged that "approximately 200" prisoners died, mostly of "wounds suffered in the fighting, disease, suffocation, suicide and a general weakness." But they offered to cooperate with "objective and impartial investigators" if they also investigated older mass graves in the area.

A State Department spokesman said a probe of "credible allegations of atrocities" will "help heal the wounds of conflict." Special war-crimes envoy Pierre Prosper will take up the issue during a visit to Kabul in November. The Pentagon, which has denied all knowledge of the atrocities despite the presence of U.S. forces in the area, had no immediate comment. The plan is to start exhuming by early November; in the meantime the United Nations is sending officials to the site to ensure there is no tampering.