KABUL // The Pentagon apologised on Monday after Rolling Stone magazine published 17 photos showing graphic scenes of US soldiers abusing the bloodied corpses of Afghan civilians they are charged with killing.
"The photos published by Rolling Stone are disturbing and in striking contrast to the standards and values of the United States Army," said a statement from the Pentagon.
The latest photos, posted on the magazine's website yesterday, are the second set of pictures showing the same US soldiers with dead Afghans.
The photos run alongside a long story detailing the allegations against the US soldiers involving events last year.
Three similar photos ran in the German magazine Der Spiegel on March 21, but there the faces of the dead Afghans were blurred out.
Five soldiers of the 3rd platoon of 5th Stryker Brigade's Bravo Company are charged by a US military court in Seattle, Washington with the murder of innocent Afghan civilians.
One of the unit's soldiers, Cpl Jeremy Morlock, was sentenced last week to 24 years in prison for three random murders, after striking a plea bargain to give evidence against the alleged ringleader, Staff Sgt Calvin Gibbs.
The soldiers are alleged to have killed a number innocent Afghans in remote areas of Kandahar province and then orchestrated make-believe battles and planted weapons on the bodies to make the victims look like combatants.
They severed fingers from the bodies to keep as trophies, allegations say.
The article reports that the platoon, having had little success in its mission to root out the Taliban , who blended easily with the local population. The platoon was "bored, shell-shocked and angry" when it decided to lash out at innocent civilians.
"By the time Gibbs arrived, morale in the Stryker Brigade had hit rock bottom," the report says. "The members of Bravo Company began to talk incessantly about killing Afghans as they went about their daily chores."
The murders were discovered only after one of the unit's soldiers, Pvt First Class Justin Stoner, revealed to army investigators that the 3rd platoon had "killed a lot of innocent people", the article reports.
One US military adviser who frequently works in Kandahar, but who wished to remain anonymous, accused Rolling Stone of irresponsibly publishing the photos when a record number of US troops are in Afghanistan fighting Taliban insurgents.
"One year after the killings and they publish the photos? It's to increase violence," the military adviser said.
In yesterday's statement the US Department of Defence said the army will "relentlessly pursue the truth, no matter where it leads, both in and out of court, no matter how unpleasant it may be, no matter how long it takes".
Even so, killings by Nato troops provoke particular animosity among ordinary Afghans, who have watched security deteriorate to its worst levels since the US invasion in 2001.
Najibullah, a resident of Kabul who, like many Afghans, has only one name. "I would join the Taliban even if they did not pay me."
A series of deadly airstrikes in the first few months of 2011 has already provoked outrage from both the government of the Afghan president Hamid Karzai and Afghan public.
Analysts in Kabul say Afghans once supportive of Nato troops are growing increasingly impatient with the foreign presence in the country.
"This will most certainly add to the growing scepticism and disillusion among the population of the presence of international forces here," said Stephen Carter, an independent policy analyst based in Kabul.
"The idea that the Americans are not really here to help Afghanistan has been gaining ground for some time, and this [the publication of the photos] will feed into that. It will make people very angry."
Last year was the deadliest of the 10-year war so far, with 2,777 civilians killed, according to a United Nations report released earlier this month.
Nato and Afghan government forces were responsible for 440 civilian deaths last year, the report said.