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Ban calls for Afghan probe into possible killing of UN staffer by friendly fire

26 April 2010 – Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today called on the Afghan authorities to probe last October’s attack on a United Nations guesthouse in Kabul after a board of inquiry suggested that a UN staffer may have been killed by Afghan security forces who may have mistaken him for an insurgent.

Five UN staff members lost their lives and several others were injured in the 28 October terrorist attack, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility, on the Bakhtar guesthouse were 34 UN staff were residing.

The report by the UN’s internal Board of Inquiry, the findings of which were made public today, describes “the confused situation at the Bakhtar guesthouse with the attackers and responding security personnel both dressed in Afghan police uniforms and a fire raging through the compound.

“The report suggests the possibility that a UN staff member, Close Protection Officer Louis Maxwell, may have been killed by Afghan security forces who may have mistaken him for an insurgent,” according to a statement issued by Mr. Ban’s spokesperson.

Mr. Maxwell, a United States national, was credited along with fellow UN security officer Lawrence Mefful of Ghana, who was also killed that day, with holding off the attackers long enough for UN colleagues to escape, thereby saving many lives during the incident.

“It is not clear how he was killed, even though there is a strong sense that he may have been killed by some of the Afghan police,” Under-Secretary-General for Field Support Susana Malcorra stated at a news conference in New York.

She emphasized the chaos that prevailed in the midst of the attack, stressing that there was a lack of clear understanding about who was fighting who, particularly since the attackers were dressed in Afghan police uniforms.

“We need to pursue this with the Afghan authorities so that we have a full-fledged understanding [of the attack], which we haven’t been able to obtain so far through the Board of Inquiry,” said Ms. Malcorra, who added that the report’s findings have been shared with Afghan authorities, the families of those killed and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which is carrying out its own investigation into the incident.

While amateur video footage of part of the attack that was obtained by the UN suggests that Mr. Maxwell may have been shot at close range, Ms. Malcorra noted that forensic evidence indicated that he was shot from a long distance.

“The footage shows clearly a person surrounded by Afghan police and, if I recall correctly, two shots and the person falling. It’s not clear from the footage that the two shots were made from close range.

“What is clear is that the forensic studies that were performed proved that they were done from a long range,” she added. “We need to fully connect how it is that he was surrounded by people and he was eventually shot by somebody from farther away.”

Today’s statement noted that the four-member Board of Inquiry, set up in December 2009 and led by former UN Police Advisor Andrew Hughes, was not able to determine who fired the shots that killed the three other UN staff members, “though it leaves open the possibility that they also may have been killed by friendly fire.”

The report also highlights a number of shortcomings in the UN’s security measures as well as with respect to coordination between the UN and both its international partners and the host government authorities.

“The Secretary-General reiterates the UN’s commitment to transparency and the strengthening of security for its personnel serving in dangerous locations,” said the statement.

“He calls on the Afghan authorities to ensure a thorough investigation into the attack on the guesthouse and the killing of UN staff.”

Mr. Ban has also instructed that the Under-Secretary-General for Safety and Security, Gregory Starr, review the security findings highlighted in the report. Mr. Starr will lead a team to Kabul next week, to discuss next steps and follow up with the Afghan authorities.

The Secretary-General has also instructed Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Alain Le Roy and UN Special Representative in Afghanistan Staffan de Mistura to contact relevant NATO officials in Brussels and Kabul for further consultations on how best to ensure improved coordination in the event of future emergencies of this nature.

The three other UN staff killed in the attack were Jossie Esto of the Philippines, who worked for the UN Development Programme (UNDP) election team; Yah Lydia Wonyene, a UNDP elections officer from Liberia; and Teshome Mandefro Egrete, an Ethiopian engineer working with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

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