American accused of shooting Afghan interpreter may have left the country, embassy says

The U.S. Embassy says an American employee of a U.S. security firm accused of fatally shooting his Afghan interpreter last week may have left Afghanistan.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission expressed concern about the case, and warned that it could hurt the image of the United States here _ even as the U.S. military suffers its deadliest year yet fighting Taliban rebels.

Militants firing rocket-propelled grenades killed a U.S. soldier and wounded another during combat operations Friday near the southern city of Kandahar, the military said. It was the 198th U.S. service member to die in or around Afghanistan since the ouster of the unpopular Taliban regime in late 2001.

Yet the Tuesday night shooting of 37-year old Noor Ahmad, allegedly by his American supervisor at a compound of U.S. Protection and Investigations in western Farah province, risks igniting anti-U.S. feeling.

Relatives of the dead man on Saturday threatened to set fire to themselves unless the American was brought to justice.

There are conflicting reports about what triggered the shooting.

Relatives claim the American opened fire during a late-night party because of a personal grievance against the Afghan. But a local militia commander who heard the shooting and later saw Ahmad's body, claimed the interpreter was to blame.

Citing another foreign USPI employee, the commander, Syedo Jan Agha, said Ahmad had walked, drunk and armed, into the American's room while he was sleeping and the American had shot him during an exchange of fire.

USPI provides security for foreign contract workers in Afghanistan, including for a major U.S.-funded road project that passes through Farah.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor said Saturday the embassy had seen the reports about the shooting, but had not had any contact with the American.

"It's our understanding that this American citizen is no longer in Afghanistan," Fintor told The Associated Press. He referred further questions about him to USPI.

Bill Dupre, USPI's country manager in Kabul, said the company would not comment on the incident.

Interior Ministry spokesman Yousuf Stanekzai said he wasn't aware that the unidentified American had departed the country.

The case has raised grave questions about the reach of Afghanistan's fledgling legal system and law enforcers _ and whether armed employees of foreign security firms can act with impunity.

The Farah police chief said Thursday that his investigators were barred by security guards from entering the USPI compound after the shooting.

Ahmad Fahim Hakim, the deputy chairman of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, urged a thorough and transparent probe into the shooting.

"We are very concerned about this kind of incident. It also blurs the friendly image that the Americans developed in Afghanistan in the early days. That is gradually vanishing," he said.

Fazel Ahmad, 45, a brother of the dead man, said that if the American was allowed to escape it would be a mockery of Afghan democracy. He threatened that he and fellow tribesmen would set fire to themselves unless the American was caught.

"My brother who died has seven children. Who will take care of them? This guy should be brought to justice and there should be an open trial because he is a foreigner and he has killed a poor Afghan man," Fazel told AP in Herat.

Foreigners working on civilian projects are generally subject to Afghan law, but the legal status of security contractors appears unclear. U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan come under American military jurisdiction.

Richard Burnett, the chief U.N. human rights officer in Afghanistan, said he was not aware that the Afghan government granted special immunities from prosecution to employees of private companies.

"I would have thought employees of private companies, no matter who they are funded by, are covered by Afghan laws," he said, AP reported.

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