ARLINGTON, Va. — The U.S. government and military coalition in Afghanistan made a formal apology and reparations payments Tuesday to the families of 19 Afghans killed and another 50 wounded by a Marine special operations unit on March 4.

"I stand before you today deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people," Army Col. John Nicholson, commander of the 10th Mountain Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, said he told the Afghans.

Each family who lost a member in the event received a traditional Afghan condolence payment of 100,000 Afghanis, or about $2,000, Nicholson said in a press conference from his headquarters at Forward Operating Base Fenty in eastern Afghanistan.

The cash, Nicholson said, "is not a legal claim." Instead, "it is a way of expressing our genuine condolences and deep regret over the incident."

The March 4 incident began when a suicide bomber in a minivan struck a vehicle in a Marine convoy, injuring one.

At the time, the Marines were passing near "a very crowded bazaar," in Nangarhar Province, which is near the Pakistan border, said Nicholson, whose Task Force Spartan is responsible for U.S. military efforts there.

According to the Associated Press, Afghan witnesses said the Marines reacted to the ambush with massive gunfire, continuing to shoot as they drove for six miles up the highway.

Afghan officials accused the Marines of firing recklessly at civilians, and the incident sparked local anti-American protests. In a highly unusual move, Army Maj. Gen. Frank Kearney, head of U.S. Special Operations Command-Central Command, ordered back to Kuwait the entire 120-man company — which was on its maiden deployment.

The company commander and senior enlisted Marine also were relieved of duty, and six of its members sent back to Camp Lejeune, N.C.

The Army is heading an investigation into the incident, and members of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service are now in Afghanistan, interviewing more than 100 witnesses in the case, Nicholson said.

Asked how Marine Special Forces Command officials view the apology and characterization of the event as a "terrible, terrible mistake," spokesman Maj. Cliff Gilmore said, "in the interest of preserving the presumption of innocence that all U.S. servicemembers deserve when facing allegations of misconduct, we will not characterize the incident until we have all the facts."

Stripes reporter Jeff Schogol contributed to this report from the Pentagon.

The statement ...

This is the English translation of the statement Army Col. John Nicholson, commander of the 10th Mountain Division�s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, said he read to the families of those killed and wounded in the March 4 incident with the Marines:

�We came here to help the Afghan people and the Afghan government, not to hurt you. We deeply appreciate the hospitality you have shown us by allowing us to stand beside you and fight our common enemy together. America has stood by you in the anti-Soviet jihad [struggle] and we stand by you today.

�God has blessed us with success and Insh�Allah (God willing) we will continue to see a better life for all Afghans � a life of dignity, honor and opportunity. Most American soldiers here have families of their own. When we see Afghan children smiling and waving, we think of our own children, and this brings a smile to our faces and joy to our hearts. We wish for you and your children, just as we do for our own children, to have a happy and healthy life.

�All life is precious. Our soldiers believe this. The American people believe this. When our soldiers see suffering and death, as we do very frequently in this war, we are very sad. When children or other innocent people suffer or die, it breaks our hearts.

�So I stand before you today deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people. We are filled with grief and sadness at the death of any Afghan. But the death and wounding of innocent Afghans at the hands of Americans is a stain on our honor, and on the memory of the many Americans who have died defending Afghanistan and the Afghan people. This was a terrible, terrible mistake, and our nation grieves with you for your loss and suffering. We humbly and respectfully ask for your forgiveness.�

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