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Journalist: U.S. Soldiers Burned Taliban Bodies on Orders


The videotaped images of American soldiers burning the bodies of two slain Taliban fighters have prompted powerful reactions in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the act and called for an inquiry; and the Taliban, calling it an affront to Islam, urged all Muslim countries to unite in their criticism.

The images were shot by an Australian freelance cameraman named Stephen DuPont. He was embedded with the US Army's 173rd Airborne Division. The video was shown on Australian television as part of a news report. The US Army Central Command ordered an investigation and said US forces are instructed not to desecrate the remains of fallen enemies. A lieutenant at the scene of the burning told Stephen DuPont that the bodies were burned for hygienic reasons. The Australian journalist who used the video in his report on television said that appeared to make no sense. But to Stephen DuPont, who spoke to us from Australia today, it did make sense.

Mr. STEPHEN DUPONT (Australian Journalist): I actually believe that the guys that were involved in the burning did it with honorable, you know, reasons. They did it through their orders or they did it, you know, for hygiene. I had no doubt in my mind that they were telling me the truth. If they were doing something that was problematic or controversial, there's no way they would have shown me this; there's no way they would have let me go up there and film this.

SIEGEL: Now in the broadcast that used your video much was made of the fact that the bodies were pointed towards Mecca and that this was, in a way, a purposeful desecration of Muslim beliefs. Were the bodies arranged in such a way and was there a loud speaker announcement to people nearby implying this could happen to you if you don't hand over the people who ambushed us.

Mr. DUPONT: No. Look, the bodies--as far as I'm concerned, the bodies are lying on the ground. They weren't facing anywhere. They were just lying there. Now what was played over the loud speakers from the psychological operations unit that I was with was a message which stated that the bodies were facing west. They never mentioned Mecca. Obviously, there's a meaning with that and, you know, there was a reason why they were using this to, I guess, to bait the Taliban and taunt the Taliban to try and engage them in a battle or arrest them.

SIEGEL: So if I hear what you're saying, though, what you captured on video initially...

Mr. DUPONT: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...was a perhaps wrong, but essentially an inadvertent or well-intentioned act--the burning of the corpses--followed by psyops taking advantage of what the facts were at that moment.

Mr. DUPONT: You've said exactly what is on my mind. It's exactly how I felt at the time, and it's exactly how I feel now.

SIEGEL: Were you able to make any judgment or inference as to whether this struck the American soldiers as something unusual or something that might have happened routinely in their service?

Mr. DUPONT: At the time, I--it wasn't like that because this broadcast happened after that. So under the circumstances, I was just amazed at how they were kind of treating the situation and they weren't doing any bad things to the bodies. They just burned them and, you know, that was the order and that's what they did and they said, `Look, you know, these are stinking. We have to do something.' I mean, what happened after that, which no one has heard until now, is that the Americans, once the situation was under control, got the villagers to come and collect the remains and those remains were buried in a graveyard, you know. OK, they weren't buried within 24 hours of the Muslim, you know, religion; but in this situation, you know, maybe they didn't have a choice. But I can't answer that, you know.

SIEGEL: It sounds to me that what you're saying is that the incident that you captured on videotape has, so far as you understood it--and there may be other judgments of it--but so far as you understood it, you'd say it's been greatly misrepresented.

Mr. DUPONT: Well, I think it is what it is, and I don't really want to pass too much judgment. Basically, my feeling is that this is what it is. You can see it. Make up your own mind, you know. I mean, I'm sticking to what I saw, and these are the facts and, you know, that's how I feel about it, you know.

SIEGEL: Well, Stephen DuPont, thank you very much for talking with us about it today.

Mr. DUPONT: Yes, thank you.

SIEGEL: Stephen DuPont is a freelance photojournalist. He spoke to us from Bondi Beach, New South Wales, Australia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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