4 Xe contractors queried in Afghan death

(MILITARY TIMES)   KABUL — Four U.S. contractors for the private security company formerly known as Blackwater are accusing the company of holding them against their will in Afghanistan after their involvement in a shooting this month, a lawyer said Saturday. A spokeswoman for the company denied the allegation.

An Afghan died and two others were wounded in the May 5 shooting, which followed a car accident in Kabul, said Lt. Col. Chris Kubik, a U.S. military spokesman in Kabul.

Blackwater was involved in a 2007 shooting in a busy square in Baghdad, Iraq, that left as many as 17 Iraqi civilians dead and led to the end of its Baghdad operations this month. It has since changed its name to Xe.

The nature of the shooting and the allegations made by the lawyer highlight the murky legal world in which private security companies operate in Afghanistan.

A California lawyer, Daniel Callahan, contacted by the contractors told the Associated Press that the Army had cleared the four men to leave Afghanistan on May 12 after completing their questioning in the shooting. But the men are now being held against their will by the company’s executives in a company “safe house” in a Kabul mosque, he said.

The men think that Xe is attempting to negotiate a deal in which it would hand them over to Afghan authorities in exchange for official permission to remain in the country, Callahan said.

Kubik said the U.S. military in Afghanistan is still investigating the incident, and that he did not know whether the four had been cleared to leave the country.

The contracting company took the four away on Thursday from a military compound where they normally lived and they were never detained by the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Kubik said.

Anne Tyrrell, a spokeswoman for Xe — based in Moyock, North Carolina — denied that the four were being held against their will, and said they were Xe contractors employed by a company named Paravant.

“What I can tell you is that they have been terminated and have been asked not to leave the country without the approval and direction of the (Department of Defense),” Tyrrell said.

“Paravant terminated the contracts with the four individuals involved in the incident for failure to comply with the terms of their contract, which require, among other things, compliance with all laws, regulations, and company policies,” Tyrrell said. She did not specify what company policy they had violated.

The company is cooperating in the military investigation, said Kubik, the spokesman for the Combined Security Transition Command, which is involved in the training of Afghan security forces and for which the contractors worked.

“If the investigation finds some fault, culpability … that will be looked at by legal personnel to determine future actions,” Kubik said.

A U.S. military statement after the incident said the contractors were involved in a vehicle accident in Kabul on May 5.

“While stopped for the vehicle accident, the contractors were approached by a vehicle in a manner the contractors felt threatening,” the statement said.

The contractors fired at the vehicle, wounding two Afghans, said the initial statement, issued May 6.

Callahan, who said he had spoken with at least two of the contractors involved in the incident, gave a different account.

He said the contractors were traveling in two vehicles when another car hit the first vehicle.

“They got out of the second vehicle, went to administer aid to the crash of the two cars ahead. And the insurgent vehicle, if we can call it that, abruptly made a U-turn and headed right at the men as they were standing,” Callahan said.

“These four men drew their guns and shot. They killed the driver and they also shot a pedestrian that was about 200 meters away. I was told that that pedestrian is in a coma,” Callahan said.

But Shah Agha, the brother of one of the wounded men, said they were not insurgents, but shopkeepers who were shot while driving home from work.

Agha said his brother Farid and his cousin Romal were traveling together when they saw Americans blocking the road. He said they were waved through one checkpoint, but were stopped by another team of Americans further down the road.

He said one of the Americans hit the side of the car, which Farid mistook for an order to move. As he drove off, bullets started hitting the back of the car, hitting Farid in the hand and Romal in the stomach. Romal died two days later, Agha said. Another person was wounded outside the car, he said.

Callahan alleged that the four contractors were being used as scapegoats for Xe’s violation of its weapons permit in the country.

He said that workers employed by the men’s company were not supposed to be armed, according to the letter of authorization between the company and the Department of Defense.

Kubik did not know whether the contractors were allowed to carry weapons.

“Blackwater violated the letter of authorization by giving these guys these guns,” Callahan said. “And now they want to put the blame on them so as to relieve Blackwater of the violation. And I think they are hanging these men to dry.”

Tyrrell said there was no blanket ban for the company on carrying weapons in Afghanistan.

“It really depends on the work. We provide different services in different places,” she said.

Callahan was the attorney who represented the families of four Blackwater employees killed in Iraq in 2004 who sued the security company.

http://militarytimes.com/news/2009/05/ap_afghanistan_death_xe_051609/

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