Marines accused of shooting and killing civilians after a suicide bombing in Afghanistan are under US investigation, and their entire unit has been ordered to leave the country, officials said on Friday.
Army Major General Francis Kearney, head of Special Operations Command Central, ordered the unit of about 120 Marines out of Afghanistan and initiated an investigation into the March 4 incident, said Lieutenant Colonel Lou Leto, spokesman at Kearney's command headquarters.
It is highly unusual for any combat unit, either special operations or conventional, to have its mission cut short.
A spokesman for the Marine unit, Major Cliff Gilmore, said it is in the process of leaving Afghanistan, but he declined to provide details on the timing and new location, citing a need for security.
In the March 4 incident in Nangahar Province, an explosives-rigged minivan crashed into a convoy of Marines that US officials said also came under fire from gunmen. As many as 10 Afghans were killed and 34 wounded as the convoy made an escape. Injured Afghans said the Americans fired on civilian cars and pedestrians as they sped away.
US military officials said militant gunmen shot at Marines and may have caused some of the civilian casualties.
President Hamid Karzai condemned the incident, which was one among several involving US forces in which civilians were killed and injured.
Leto said the Marines, after being ambushed, responded in a way that created "perceptions [that] have really damaged the relationship between the local population and this unit."
Therefore, he said, "the general felt it was best to move them out of that area."
Gilmore said the Marine company would complete its overseas deployment with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is the larger unit it sailed with from the US, in January, but it will no longer operate in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Taliban militants attacked a convoy delivering supplies to foreign troops in southern Afghanistan on Friday, killing 17 Afghan security guards and drivers, their commander said.
Another four guards were missing in the ambush by about 100 Taliban in the southern province of Kandahar, the commander of the pro-government militia that had been guarding the convoy said.
"Fifteen security guards and two truck drivers were killed in the attack," commander Abdul Manan said.
"Four guards are missing. Five trucks and one pick-up truck were burned to ashes. Taliban have taken one of the pick-up trucks," he said.
The Afghan Islamic Press news agency said Kandahar police general Asmatullah Alizai confirmed the incident, although he said 10 guards and four drivers were killed.
The convoy was attacked on the highway between Kabul and the main city in the south, Kandahar, en route to a military base in Zabul Province.
On Wednesday the decapitated body of an Afghan truck driver supplying NATO forces was found dumped at the side of the same highway in Zabul, not far from the scene of Friday's attack.