KABUL – Four U.S. private security guards are being held against their will in Afghanistan by the company formerly known as Blackwater after their involvement in a deadly shooting, their lawyer said Saturday.
A spokeswoman for the company denied the allegation.
The shooting and allegations of forced confinement by the contractors' lawyer highlights the murky legal world in which private security companies operate in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
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.
An Afghan died and two others were wounded in the May 5 incident in the capital Kabul, said Lt. Col. Chris Kubik, a U.S. military spokesman.
The family of the dead Afghan man said he and the two others were innocent civilians driving home after work. The lawyer for the suspects said they were insurgents trying to kill his clients.
Daniel Callahan, a California lawyer for the contractors, told The Associated Press the four Americans allegedly involved were being scapegoated. He said workers employed by the company were not supposed to be armed.
"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."
Anne Tyrrell, a spokeswoman for Xe — based in Moyock, North Carolina — said the company was not entirely banned from carrying weapons in Afghanistan. "It really depends on the work," she said.
Kubik, the U.S. military spokesman, said he did not know whether the contractors were allowed to carry weapons.
Callahan alleged the U.S. Army cleared the four Americans to leave Afghanistan on May 12 after completing their questioning. But they were now being held against their will at a company safe house in Kabul, he said.
Tyrrell denied the four were being forcibly detained.
"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 told the Associated Press.
"The company continues to seek guidance from DoD on the travel status of the individuals involved," a statement later quoted Tyrrell as saying.
Kubik said the U.S. military in Afghanistan is still investigating the incident, and 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 lived and they were never detained by the U.S. military, Kubik said.
The men believe 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.
A U.S. military statement following 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 opened fire on the vehicle, it said.
Callahan — the attorney who represented the families of four Blackwater employees killed in Iraq in 2004 who sued the security company — said the contractors were traveling in two vehicles when another car hit the first one.
"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 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.