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Afghan war crimes a low priority

Despite a UN visit last week, a full investigation of the mass grave in Dasht-e Leili has yet to begin.

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Commander Taher Charkhi, who helped bury scores of bodies here in a mass grave, is clearly pleased when he says that Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners "suffocated in the containers" last November.

The burly commander adds that he is surprised that anyone cares what happened to these fighters, who backed the plotters of the attacks on the World Trade Center. "Thousands should have died, not hundreds," he says, strolling over the wind-swept graves littered with bloody clothes and jawbones.

Western human rights groups have detailed eyewitness reports that, in November, Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners, packed by the hundreds in single metal shipping containers, suffocated as they were being transported to a nearby prison. Earlier this year, the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights came and excavated 15 of the dead here in the vast desert on the edge of this city.

But whether the deaths will be prosecuted as war crimes is unclear.

Leonard Rubenstein, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, says that, while European officials and media have compared the crimes to the mass executions in Bosnia, "the people who are not seeing the connection between this and other war crimes of our time are the people in this [US] administration." Mr. Rubenstein notes that, although the US initially called for the Afghan government to investigate the incident, "clearly they're in no position to do that. Since then, there's just been silence."

The blasé attitude of some officials is reflected in the words of a Western diplomat in Kabul, whose country has supported war-crimes prosecutions in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. He asks: "Is it really a great surprise to anyone that there were war crimes committed in Afghanistan? Is this really something we should be focused on?"

There has been only limited enthusiasm for investigating this mass grave from the one body – the United Nations – which has helped create legal systems to oversee war-crimes investigations in the past. Despite a UN visit to the headquarters of Gen. Rashid Dostum's headquarters last week, a full investigation of the grave has not yet begun. Dostum led the attacks on Konduz, which led to the capture of the Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners who eventually died and were buried at Dasht-e Leili.

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