RALEIGH, N.C. – Two former Blackwater contractors were arrested Thursday on murder charges in the shootings of two Afghans after a traffic accident last year, according to an indictment obtained by The Associated Press.
The indictment charges Justin Cannon, 27, and Chris Drotleff, 29, with second-degree murder, attempted murder and weapons charges. FBI agents arrested both of them without incident, said Peter Carr, a spokesman with the U.S. attorney's office in Virginia's eastern district.
Both men have said in recent interviews with The Associated Press that they were justified in opening fire on a car that caused an accident in front of their vehicle, then turned and sped toward them. The indictment says the shooting at a Kabul intersection killed two people. At least one other person was injured.
The military veterans worked for Paravant, a subsidiary of Xe, the company formerly known as Blackwater. Both Cannon and Drotleff were fired after the shooting for failing to comply with the terms of their contract.
"I feel comfortable firing my weapon any time I feel my life is in danger," Drotleff said in a recent interview. "That night, my life was 100 percent in danger."
The investigation is the latest push in the U.S. government's attempt to increase oversight of contractor activities in war zones after a series of problems in Iraq strained relations between Washington and Baghdad. Several Blackwater contractors had been charged with 14 counts of manslaughter for their role in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad's Nisoor Square, but a judge dropped those charges last week.
U.S. officials have struggled to demonstrate that the government has both the legal grounds and political fortitude to hold contractors accountable.
In another case, federal prosecutors have told a Seattle attorney they intend to charge another Blackwater contractor in the killing of an Iraqi guard in 2006.
Xe lawyer Peter White had no immediate comment on Thursday's indictment.
Steve McClain, another former contractor who was with Cannon and Drotleff during the shootings, told the AP he spent about 90 minutes before a Virginia grand jury this week detailing his recollections of what happened.
Cannon, Drotleff and McClain said in separate interviews with the AP over the past month that they were driving along a Kabul road on the night of May 5 when a speeding car slammed into the first vehicle of their convoy, causing it to flip.
Cannon and Drotleff were traveling in another vehicle and got out to help. They both said the car that caused the accident turned and started speeding toward them. Fearing for their lives, both opened fire, with Drotleff emptying a 16-round clip. Cannon was unsure how many shots were fired.
"My conscience is clear about it, but that doesn't really matter," Cannon said. "If someone's got an agenda, then there's nothing I can do about it."
The former workers complained that Blackwater tried to make them a scapegoat. They said the company armed some of its workers in Afghanistan despite U.S. military documents that prohibited them from carrying guns. The contractors were in Kabul to help train the Afghan National Army.
McClain's termination letter from Blackwater cited violation of alcohol policy, and he said that topic was one focus of grand jury questioning.
"I wasn't drinking and I didn't witness (any of the other contractors) drinking that day," said McClain, 25, of California.
A fourth contractor at the scene, Amando Hamid, did not return messages seeking comment.