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11 Mar, 2009 06:30

Polish soldiers stand trial for killing Afghan civilians

A trial is gripping Poland, with seven soldiers in the dock over the killing of six civilians – including a pregnant woman and child – in a mortar attack in Afghanistan.

Andrzej Osiecki is a professional soldier. After leaving military school in Poland, he went to Iraq and then on to Afghanistan, but now his peacekeeping mission is under investigation. Along with five other Polish soldiers, he faces murder charges for allegedly killing six civilians in an unprovoked attack. The seventh soldier faces lesser charges.

“On August 16, 2007, mortar shells that were fired by Polish troops hit the Afghan village of Nangar Khel. As a result six people were killed and three were severely wounded,” court press officer Rafat Korkus says.

A pregnant woman and a child were among the dead. Prosecutors allege that it was a revenge attack, as a Polish soldier had been killed by a roadside bomb in the same area a couple of hours earlier. The soldiers insist it was accidental, saying their targets were the Taliban.

“We didn’t see people, but first it was a machine gun and after that we were shooting mortar to this observation point and we used 24 ammo, but it was an accident,” said defendant Andrzej Osiecki.

Osiecki is convinced that faulty ammunition and equipment are also to blame.

“I think this accident happened because our ammo was damaged or something like that, and there was also a problem with our mortar,” Osiecki said.

He says poor equipment caused one grenade to fly in the wrong direction by half a kilometer, which is under dispute.

“This is not logical. The operator of the mortar could not make such a serious error with such a large distance. The question is: did they decide to open fire themselves, or did they receive a command from above? But there is no doubt – they were shooting at the village, not the nearby hills,” says Andrzej Rozenek, investigative journalist for ‘NIE’ newspaper.

If convicted, six of the seven men could face life imprisonment. Piotr Kruszynski, one of their defence lawyers, believes their commanding officers – those who ordered the attack – should be held responsible.

“One thing is clear to me: these people should not be accused. Maybe someone else – I don’t know and I don’t want to clarify who – but I suppose that my client and the other soldiers should be treated as innocent people,” says Kruszynski.

The trial is raising issues over Poland's peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan. It is the first time criminal charges have been brought against Polish soldiers there, and the first time Polish soldiers have been portrayed as war criminals.

The case is expected to last several months, if not years. The court is expected to hear from dozens of witnesses.