By Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - An Afghan interpreter for U.S. special forces arrested on accusations of torturing and killing civilians has denied involvement in the murders to Afghan investigators, and said he was always acting on orders from his U.S. military handlers.
Afghan authorities detained Zakeria Kandahari six weeks ago following allegations he was involved in atrocities against civilians in Wardak, a strategically important province close to Kabul.
In a record of the interview being prepared by military investigators and obtained by Reuters, Kandahari said he had worked for U.S. special forces across Afghanistan for nine years, most recently in Wardak's Nerkh district, where the allegations surfaced in February.
"I was a low-rank translator and had no access to roam around inside the base, or in interrogation rooms," Kandahari told the investigators, according to the three-page document which carried his photograph on the front page, dressed in camouflage fatigues and a hat.
The Afghan government has in the past said that Kandahari is Afghan-American, although his exact background remains unclear.
In the document, Kandahari identified three U.S. special forces soldiers as "Dave, chief of the operations, Hagen and Chris" and told Afghan military interrogators that the trio had been fluent in both of Afghanistan's major languages, Dari and Pashto.
"Kandahari rejects all allegations leveled to him and links the three soldiers to the killings," the interview document said, citing Kandahari, whose case threatens relations between the government and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), already tense over the issue of civilian deaths.
U.S. military officials have consistently denied special forces participated in, or turned a blind-eye to, torture and illegal killings by Afghans working with them in Nerkh.
"U.S. forces conducted several investigations which determined there was no credible evidence to substantiate misconduct by ISAF or U.S. forces," a senior spokesman for the force told Reuters on Tuesday.
"Having said that, ISAF takes all allegations of detainee abuse seriously and we will continue to cooperate with the Afghan government on this matter," he said.
Investigators said in the document Sayed Mohammad, a Wardak resident, was seen in a mobile phone video being beaten by Kandahari, who the investigator said was a senior interpreter for U.S. special forces. Mohammad was later found dead.
"I also kicked him several times while I was taking him to the base. I handed him over to Mr. Dave and Mr. Hagen, but later I saw his body in a black body bag," Kandahari told his interrogators, according to the record, written in Dari.
Afghan officials in Wardak and relatives told Reuters earlier that Mohammad's body was found near the Nerkh special forces base in May with both feet cut off. Mohammad first disappeared in November last year.
The abuse allegations prompted President Hamid Karzai in March to bar elite U.S. troops from Wardak, a potentially risky move because it could give Taliban insurgents more room to operate in an area near the capital.
Karzai later agreed to a compromise with NATO forces entailing a more limited and gradual pullout from Wardak than he had initially demanded.
Atrocities against civilians have been a flashpoint in relations between the government and NATO-led forces since an American soldier was accused of murdering 16 civilians in Kandahar province in March last year, complicating negotiations on a U.S. military presence in the country beyond NATO's 2014 combat exit.
Afghan authorities have already arrested an Afghan army colonel who allegedly handed prisoners over to Kandahari. That arrest came after the bodies of three men detained in joint U.S.-Afghan raids since November were last month found close to the Nerkh military base.
Reuters has seen a list compiled by the Ministry of Defense of 18 men allegedly detained in Nerkh. The three whose bodies were found in June were among 10 listed as missing, villagers and officials said. The other eight were listed as dead.
(Additional reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Robert Birsel)