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Afghan Journalist Was Mistakenly Killed By U.S. Soldier, Report Concludes

Ahmad Omid Khpalwak, in an undated photo.
AFP/Getty Images
Ahmad Omid Khpalwak, in an undated photo.

An Afghan journalist who was working at the time for the BBC was mistakenly killed by U.S. forces in late July, the allied military command in Afghanistan conceded today.

Ahmad Omid Khpalwak "was shot by [a U.S. soldier] who believed he was an insurgent that posed a threat and was about to detonate a suicide vest improvised explosive device (IED)," the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan reported. It has concluded that the soldier "complied with the laws of armed conflict and rules of engagement and acted reasonably under the circumstances."

In an executive summary of its findings, ISAF writes that:

"On 28 July, 2011 insurgents initiated a complex attack in the city of Tarin Khot, Uruzgan, Afghanistan. The targets attacked included the Provincial Governor's Compound and the Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA) compound. ...

[After engaging the insurgents], "U.S. forces led a building clearing operation to confirm the insurgents no longer posed a threat. Upon U.S. Soldiers entering the RTA building the two suicide bombers detonated their explosives, collapsing the front walls of the building and trapping membersof the clearing team under heavy brick debris. ...

"During the clearing operation a Soldier in an overwatch position, outside the building, identified movement of a young adult male in the building through a large hold in a broken wall. The room the man was in was immediately adjacent to the room where one of the suicide bombers had detonated his suicide vest IED, and across the hall from the other suicide vest detonation, just minutes before. The Soldier then heard a shot that he perceived came from the man's exact location. It is probable that the shot he heard was actually fire by a Soldier inside the building during the building clearing. ...

"A Soldier was directed to move up to the broken wall where the man was seen. As the Soldier approached he observed a young adult male with a beard with something clinched in one of his fists and reaching for something on his person with his other hand. Based on the events of the events of the preceding minutes the Soldier assessed the actions as those of a suicide bomber who was taking steps to detonate an IED that posed a lethal threat to numerous Soldiers in the immediate area. He shot the individual with his M-4,killing him. ...

"Afghan forces removed the body from the building; it was that of Ahmad Omid Khpalwak. He was unarmed; no weapon was found nearby. It appears that all the rounds perceived as coming from his location were instead fired by U.S. Soldiers. In summary, Ahmad Omid Khpalwak was killed in a case of mistaken identity. He was shot by US forces who believed he was an insurgent that fired on them with a weapon and was subsequently taking action to detonate a suicide vest IED."

In another statement ISAF also states it "would like to express its condolences to the family of Mr. Khpalwak."

As the BBC adds, the journalist "was one of 19 people killed" in the incident. (Note: The BBC refers to him as Ahmed Omed Khpulwak. It is not unusual for English translations of Afghans' names to be spelled in various ways.)

On Sunday, the Los Angeles Timeswrote about the text messages that Khpalwak sent to his brother in the minutes before he was killed. "Death is approaching," he messaged. "I am hiding."

According to the Times, a short time later Khpalwak wrote: "If I die, pray for me."

The journalist's brother believes he was reaching for his press card when he was shot.

The Times adds that "the incident points up the daily dangers faced by Afghans who work for foreign organizations, as well as Afghan civilians in general, particularly those living in a broad swath of Afghanistan's restive south."

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.