US contractors 'violated gun policy in Iraq'

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The Independent Online

Four US contractors for the company formerly known as Blackwater were not authorised to carry weapons when they were involved in a deadly shooting in Afghanistan this month, the US military said today.

The men - accused of opening fire on a vehicle in the capital on 5 May - have charged that their employer, now called Xe, issued them guns in breach of the company's contract with the military. One Afghan was killed in the shooting, and two others wounded.

Xe has said its employees are not generally banned from carrying weapons in Afghanistan, though the authorization depends on the duties of the contractors. Anne Tyrrell, a spokeswoman for Moycock, N.C.-based Xe, declined to comment on the terms of this specific contract or say if the company issued guns to the men.

But the military told The Associated Press that the contract did not allow the men to keep guns on them.

"By the terms of the contract, they were not authorized to carry weapons," said Lt. Col. Chris Kubik, a US military spokesman. Kubik said the military had not given guns to the men, but said he did not know if the weapons were issued by Xe or privately owned.

Blackwater was involved in a 2007 shooting in a busy square in Baghdad that left as many as 17 Iraqi civilians dead and led to the end of its Baghdad operations this month.

The industry has become more cautious since the shooting, but private contractors still provide a host of services in war zones.

In Afghanistan, contract employees — often former military or police — train troops along with providing security for diplomats and other international workers, technical expertise and logistical support. Though there have been no incidents in Afghanistan on par with the Iraq shooting, companies have been dogged by allegations of corruption and heavy-handedness.

The men in question were contracted to provide military training and as such "were authorized to handle weapons in the course of their duties," but were not allowed to have weapons with them at other times, Kubik said.

"Obviously, in this instance they were not training Afghan soldiers," Kubik said. He added that the weapons they fired did not match any that would have been used in training and he had no information that would suggest the contractors were on their way to or from a training when the shooting occurred, at about 9 p.m.

Tyrrell has said the men were fired after the incident for not following the terms of their contract, without saying what regulation or policy they had violated. She did not say if this meant they were carrying privately purchased weapons. She said Tuesday she would make no further comments, citing the ongoing military investigation.

Daniel Callahan, a California lawyer for the contractors, has said the four Americans are being scapegoated by Xe, which issued them the guns.

On 5 May, the contractors got into a car accident on a major Kabul road, according to a military statement issued two days later.

"While stopped for the vehicle accident, the contractors were approached by a vehicle in a manner the contractors felt threatening" and opened fire, the statement said.

Callahan — the attorney who also represented the families of four Blackwater employees killed in Iraq in 2004 who sued the security company — said the contractors were traveling in two vehicles when a car hit the first one. They had gotten out to give first aid when another car made a U-turn and drove toward them, he said.

"These four men drew their guns and shot," Callahan said.

The brother of one of the wounded Afghans has said the car was full of shopkeepers heading home from work who misinterpreted one of the Americans hitting the car as an order to move. Bullets started hitting the back of the Toyota Corolla as it drove off. A passenger was hit in the stomach and died two days later, said Shah Agha, whose brother Farid was driving the car. Farid was shot in the hand and another person was injured outside the vehicle, Agha said.

The contractors have said Xe is holding them against their will in Kabul after originally clearing them to leave the country. They have reached out to their lawyer by making phone calls from an undisclosed location in the city.

Tyrrell, the Xe spokeswoman, has denied that the contractors are being forcibly detained, saying that they have been asked not to leave the country without the approval of the Defense Department.

Kubik said he did not have details about the contractors' location, but that the military's contract also stipulates that Paravant, the Xe subsidiary responsible for the training, "is required or obligated to keep contractors in country who are under investigation for this sort of incident."

The investigation is ongoing, he said.