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Rumsfeld Seeks Investigation Of Mistreatment Allegations

By Esther Schrader
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- washington

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has asked for an investigation into allegations that a group of Afghans mistakenly taken prisoner by U.S. Special Forces last month were beaten and mistreated, but senior Pentagon officials said Monday that so far there is no evidence that such abuse took place.

At a news conference at the Pentagon, officials also defended a CIA missile strike last week near Zhawar Kili in eastern Afghanistan amid reports that civilians had been killed.

The strike by a Hellfire missile from an unmanned Predator drone hit its intended target, the officials said. The people killed were “not innocents,” said Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The reports are part of an increasing drumbeat of accounts of misfires and mistakes by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Pentagon officials say the situation in Afghanistan is increasingly murky, with former Taliban and al-Qaida fighters switching sides or seeking to blend into the general population.

“To say that conditions in Afghanistan are confusing is an understatement, you know,” said Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke. “And it’s impossible to say these people are on this side and these people are on that side. People are on multiple sides, and they switch sides. So there is a great deal of confusion about information in general. And we do always try to get to (the) truth.”

Local officials in Afghanistan say there is a growing body of evidence that the United States has, in several cases, captured or killed the wrong people.

A U.S. investigations team trekked up to the mountainside site of the Hellfire missile strike late Sunday and left Monday morning, taking with them small pieces of human flesh and bone, communications equipment, documents, small weapons and ammunition, defense officials said.

A report in The Washington Post on Monday said people killed in the strike had been peasants collecting scrap metal. U.S. officials have said they believed the targets were al-Qaida members, in part because of their Arab-style dress.

“We do not know who the individuals were at the strike site,” Stufflebeem said. “The indications were there that there was something untoward that we needed to make go away.”

Stufflebeem did not elaborate, citing concerns about the secrecy of intelligence operations. He said forensics experts plan to conduct DNA testing on the human remains to try and determine the identities of those killed. U.S. officials reportedly have collected DNA samples from members of Osama bin Laden’s family.

The CIA continues to believe that the missile attack “was a good strike on an appropriate target,” a U.S. intelligence official said, although there is no hard evidence suggesting bin Laden was among those killed.