April 5, 2010— -- NATO has launched yet another investigation into the deaths of five Afghan civilians killed during a botched nighttime raid in February.
The announcement comes after a separate Afghan Interior Ministry investigation of the incident found possible evidence tampering by U.S. and Afghan troops involved in the shooting.
The news comes a day after NATO reversed itself, following weeks of denials, and admitted that its forces had been responsible for the civilian deaths that resulted from the mistaken targeting of a compound by a U.S.-Afghan military team searching for insurgents.
On Feb. 12, U.S. Special Operations Forces and Afghan troops raided a compound in Gardez, in eastern Afghanistan, that resulted in the deaths of two armed Afghan men. NATO said its forces had also discovered the bodies of three women in the compound who were said to have been bound and gagged.
Despite protests from surviving family members, NATO officials had maintained for weeks that the women had been killed by the insurgents. But NATO reversed itself this weekend after acknowledging that its investigation had determined that all five deaths had resulted from NATO fire.
In a statement issued Sunday, NATO admitted it's forces had targeted the wrong compound and killed two armed men in the mistaken belief they were insurgents and that the three women were "accidentally killed as a result of the joint force firing at the men."
The statement said NATO forces involved in the incident were unaware of local burial customs that had led them to believe the women had been bound and gagged.
"We now understand that the men killed were only trying to protect their families," Brigadier General Eric Tremblay, spokesman for NATO-led forces, said in the statement.
However, a separate review of the incident by the Afghan Interior Ministry says its investigators found signs of possible evidence tampering at the scene by the forces involved, including the removal of bullets from walls near where the women were killed.
NATO to Look Again Into Deaths of Afghan Civilians
A NATO official says a new investigation has been launched to determine if the Interior Ministry's "allegations are founded." Another NATO official says Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the senior NATO commander in Afghanistan had been briefed on the results of the Afghan investigation, but wouldn't comment further because the investigation was ongoing.
The Times of London made stronger allegations on Monday, reporting that Afghan investigators had determined that American forces might have been involved in a cover-up, alleging they had "dug bullets out of their victims' bodies in the bloody aftermath" and then "washed the wounds with alcohol before lying to their superiors about what happened."
The NATO official says the initial investigation, the conclusions of which were released this weekend, discussed "having dug a couple of bullets out of the wall" to determine where the rounds "ended up hitting." The investigation focused in on where the bullets hit a wall in one specific room to determine their ballistic path. But, the NATO official said, "we strongly deny having done anything to the bodies, to include removing bullets."
Of the differing results, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Monday, "NATO and the Ministry of Interior conducted a joint fact-finding assessment of the situation and they produced separate investigation results." He added, "a subsequent investigation has been ordered to reconcile aspects of the two investigations."
A NATO official says Gen. McChrystal ordered a new review last week and it will likely begin in a few days. It will focus on what actions took place after the actual shooting to clear up inconsistencies with the Interior Ministry's review.
Two pregnant women, a teenage girl, a police officer and his brother were shot during the February 12 nighttime raid when U.S. and Afghan special operations forces stormed their home outside Gardez in eastern Afghanistan.
For weeks senior NATO officials denied the family's story and were critical of the Times of London reporter who printed their claims, and implied in an interview with ABC News that the women had been killed by their own family. "Two of the women had lacerations on their throats," a senior NATO official said in mid- March. "And one had a wound consistent with a defensive wound on her hand."
NATO to Look Again Into Deaths of Afghan Civilians
But family members interviewed by ABC News claimed the coalition forces had shot the five civilians, including the three women who were cowering behind a wall when the shooting began.
A relative of the shooting victims contacted today by ABC News said the incident occurred around 2:30 a.m. to 3 a.m., but U.S. forces did not allow access to the scene until 8 a.m. The relative alleges that U.S. forces had cleared as many empty bullet shells and other visible evidence before then.
The relative also alleges that the U.S.-Afghan forces even restricted access to the compound to local Afghan officials including the police chief and members of the provincial council.
Another family member who survived the incident also alleges to ABC News that after the first man was shot, his brother was about to go outside when his wife begged him not to. "There are Americans outside…they're climbing the wall and the roof," she said.
But the man refused, and his wife was trying to pull him back into the house as they both exited the house together. Both were shot and killed by the Afghan- NATO force.
Without giving details, the relative says the force killed two additional women, adding this: they were both pregnant.
"They didn't kill five people that night," he said. "They killed 7."
The father of the two brothers who were killed in the raid adds, "My heart is burning. I will take revenge, no matter what happens to me."
Reducing the civilian deaths caused by NATO forces has been a key element of General Stanley McChrystal's strategy for turning around the security situation in Afghanistan.
Last month, McChrystal issued a tactical directive placing restrictions on night raids conducted by NATO forces noting that they come at a "steep cost in terms of perceptions of the Afghan people."