DASHT-E LEILI, Afghanistan — Seven years ago, a convoy of container trucks rumbled across northern Afghanistan loaded with the human cargo of suspected Taliban and al Qaida members who'd surrendered to Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Afghan warlord and a key U.S. ally in ousting the Taliban regime.
When the trucks arrived at a prison in the town of Sheberghan, near Dostum's headquarters, they were filled with corpses. Most of the prisoners had suffocated, and others had been killed by bullets that Dostum's militiamen had fired into the metal containers.
Dostum's men hauled the bodies into the nearby desert and buried them in mass graves, according to Afghan human rights officials. By some estimates, 2,000 men were buried there.
Earlier this year, bulldozers and backhoes returned to the scene, reportedly exhumed the bones of many of the dead men and removed evidence of the atrocity to sites unknown. In the area where the mass graves once were, there now are gaping pits in the sands of the Dasht-e-Leili desert.
A U.N.-sponsored team of experts first spotted two large excavations on a visit in June, one of them about 100 feet long and more than 9 feet deep in places. A McClatchy reporter visited the site last month and found three additional smaller pits, which apparently had been dug since June.
Faqir Mohammed Jowzjani, a former Dostum ally and the deputy governor of Jowzjan province, where the graves were located, told McClatchy that it's common knowledge that Dostum sent in the bulldozers.
He speculated that Dostum wanted to destroy the evidence because of local political trouble that could have made him more prone to prosecution for the killings.
NATO, which has command authority over a team of troops less than three miles from the grave site, the United Nations and the United States have been silent about the destruction of evidence of Dostum's alleged war crimes.
"The truth is that General Dostum went out with bulldozers and dug up those graves," Jowzjani charged. "I don't know why UNAMA" — the U.N. mission in Afghanistan — "hasn't said anything in this regard ... maybe because of fears about his power, or maybe they made a deal."
Gen. Ghulam Mujtaba Patang, the commander of Afghanistan's national police in the north, said that he knew that the graves had been emptied. He noted that "the digging was done very professionally" and said that U.N. and NATO-led teams in the area were also aware. (While provincial reconstruction teams are led by individual nations, their military components are under NATO command.)
Dostum was unavailable for comment, and one of his senior aides, Gen. Ghani Karim Zada, declined several interview requests.
The Bush administration, too, has remained silent. U.S. officials claimed that they had no knowledge of the deaths of the prisoners in the convoy until the news media revealed them in 2002, and now the administration has remained silent about Dostum's re ported effort to destroy the evidence of them, which also would be a major violation of international law.
American officials say that Dostum's alleged war crimes are a matter for the Afghan authorities. But the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai is weak and depends on American and NATO troops to fight a growing Taliban insurgency that now operates in most of Afghanistan and all but surrounds Kabul, the capital.
However, the fact that U.S. special forces and CIA operatives were working closely with Dostum in late 2001, when the killings took place, has fueled suspicions that the warlord got a free pass.
The U.S. Defense Department has said that it found no evidence of American involvement or presence during the 2001 incident. If there was an investigation, however, its findings have never been made public.
"At the time, we had a handful of special forces and CIA, and there was no way we could have exercised any oversight" of the thousands of detainees under Afghan control, said Joseph Collins, who was then the deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations.
When he was asked about the detainees suffocating in metal shipping containers, Collins, who's now a professor at the National War College, said that "I think most people just took for granted what he (Dostum) said: that it was a horrible accident."
Dostum offered to take Pierre-Richard Prosper, who was then the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, on a tour of the grave site in late 2002, but Prosper declined. He was pressing a reluctant Afghan government and the U.N. to take the lead in investigating the killings.
"We felt the Afghans needed to play a role," Prosper said in a telephone interview. "If you're a new government, and you want to move forward, you have to deal with the past."
However, no investigation was likely without strong U.S. backing, and Prosper said that he couldn't recall whether Washington ever gave funding for a probe.
Farid Mutaqi, a senior investigator for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in the nearby city of Mazar-e-Sharif, said that it was almost impossible to visit the site because of Dostum's power in northern Afghanistan.
Mutaqi said there'd been threats on his life and those of his staff members from Dostum. There are rumors that the site was mined and that Dostum's men would torture or kill people if they were caught researching in the area. At least three Afghans who witnessed the original digging of the mass grave or who investigated it later reportedly were killed, and a handful of others were beaten.
Mutaqi said that he told officials at the United Nations and the local provincial reconstruction team that Dostum's men had disturbed the mass graves this year. They did nothing, he said.
Now, Mutaqi said, "You can see only a hole. In the area around it you can find a few bones or some clothes. The site is gone ... as for evidence, there is nothing."
Spokesmen for NATO and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul denied knowing that the remains of hundreds of men had been removed from the site, and had no further comment.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Mark Stroh said that he'd checked with several officials at the embassy and "nobody seemed to have any visibility on this."