WASHINGTON – Two former Blackwater employees have been arrested and charged with the murder of two Afghans in Kabul last year and could face the death penalty, the US Justice Department has said.
Justin Cannon, 27, of Corpus Christi, Texas, and Christopher Drotleff, 29, of Virginia Beach, Virginia, were arrested Thursday and charged with second-degree murder following the shooting deaths of the two Afghan men.
They were also charged with attempted murder, after a third man was wounded in the Kabul incident on May 5, when Cannon and Drotleff were working as contractors for the US military in Afghanistan.
Both men, who had provided training to the Afghan army in using and maintaining weapons systems, were detained after the 13-count grand jury indictment, the statement added.
They face a total of eight charges each, including knowingly discharging a firearm to commit a crime.
The arrests come in sharp contrast to last week's dismissal by a federal judge of criminal charges against five Blackwater guards stemming from a bloody confrontation in Baghdad in 2007 that left 14 people dead.
That decision outraged many Iraqis and led the country's government to begin steps to try and bring the contractor firm to justice over the highly publicized controversy.
Blackwater, a private security firm which has changed its name to Xe Services, is headquartered in North Carolina. The two men in the Kabul clash were employed by Paravant LLC, a Xe subsidiary.
The Department of Justice said the Kabul incident that led to the charges occurred at an intersection in the Afghan capital.
The two men who were shot dead were identified as Rahib Mirza Mohammad (also known as Rahib Helaludin) and Romal Mohammad Naiem.
Few other details of what had happened were given, but some reports said the shootings arose out of a road traffic accident.
Xe spokesman Mark Corallo told The Washington Post the company "immediately and fully cooperated with the government's investigation of this tragic incident and terminated the individuals involved for violating company policy." He said there would be no further comment.
Blackwater was once among the largest security firms operating in Iraq after the US-led invasion of 2003.
In September 2007, Blackwater guards opened fire with automatic weapons while escorting an American diplomatic convoy through Baghdad's Nisur Square.
Blackwater said their guards had come under attack.
Last week the charges were dismissed against five Blackwater guards accused of fatally shooting 14 people in the incident.
Judge Ricardo Urbina said prosecutors violated the defendants' rights by using incriminating statements they had made under immunity during a State Department probe to build their case.
But the Post reported the case was dismissed after attorneys for about 70 Iraqis who sued Xe said they had all agreed to a financial settlement originally reached with the company in November.
"We are pleased that the original settlement has been affirmed by the plaintiffs," the company and plaintiffs' attorneys said Thursday in a joint statement quoted by the US daily.
"This enables Xe's new management to move the company forward free of the costs and distraction of ongoing litigation, and provides some compensation to Iraqi families."
The New York Times reported however that 10 other victims represented by a different law firm said they had not yet been offered settlements.
Blackwater first came under scrutiny on March 31, 2004, when four of its employees were killed by an angry mob in Fallujah, then a Sunni Arab insurgent stronghold.
US media further reported this week that two Xe contractors had been among eight people killed in a suicide bombing at a CIA base in eastern Afghanistan on December 30.
The reports pointed to a continued close relationship between the CIA and Blackwater.
The firm is believed to have participated in programs to kill top Al-Qaeda terrorists in 2004, among other missions, but the Central Intelligence Agency had appeared to distance itself from the firm in recent years.