US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has said the behaviour of US Marines in a video which appears to show them urinating on the blood-soaked bodies of dead insurgency fighters is "utterly deplorable".
Mr Panetta said he had ordered the Marine Corps and the commander of US and Nato troops in Afghanistan to investigate the incident.
"I have seen the footage, and I find the behavior depicted in it utterly deplorable," Mr Panetta said in a statement.
"Those found to have engaged in such conduct will be held accountable to the fullest extent," he said.
The Pentaton said it had no information so far that casts doubt on the authenticity of the video.
"We don't have any indication that it's not authentic," Pentagon spokesman Captain John Kirby said.
It certainly appears to us to be what it appears to be to you guys... troops urinating on corpses. But there's an investigation process ongoing. We need to let that work its way through to determine all the facts of the case."
Both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Taliban enemy have denounced the video.
A Taliban spokesman described the scenes as "barbaric". The short video clip features four khaki clad Marines, some in sunglasses, laughing as they urinate on three corpses. One soldier uses high-pitch comic voice as he says 'have a great day buddy.’
The emergence of the footage follows the prosecution of the five soldiers of the US Army’s 5th Stryker Brigade accused of murdering Afghan civilians in Helmand province in 2010.
“The actions portrayed are not consistent with our core values and are not indicative of the character of the Marines in our Corps. This matter will be fully investigated,” said a Pentagon spokesman, while the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan 'stongly condemned’ the actions captured on the video and blamed them on a “small group of US individuals, who apparently are no longer serving in Afghanistan”.
One Pentagon official described the actions as 'disgusting.’ “It turned my stomach,” he said.
A senior Taliban spokesman said there had been hundreds of similar abuses carried out by foreign forces in Afghanistan over the last ten years, but this latest one would not sabotage early stage negotiations between the movement’s leadership and the US State Department. Talks are expected to begin soon on possible Taliban prisoner releases and other 'confidence building measures’ to encourage full negotiations to end the conflict.
“This is yet another barbaric act by foreign forces. Over the past 10 years there have been hundreds of similar cases that were not revealed.We strongly condemn this,” said Zabihullah Mujahed. But he added: “I don’t think this new issue will affect negotiations which at this stage are mainly about prisoner exchange.” But fears remain that the video images could yet provoke anti-US protests and attacks on Western installations in the country after they were broadcast on the local television station Tolo.
President Karzai added his to the growing number of voices condemning the video.
“The government of Afghanistan is deeply disturbed by a video that shows American soldiers desecrating dead bodies of three Afghans,” he said in a statement from the president’s office.
“This act by American soldiers is simply inhuman and condemnable in the strongest possible terms. We expressly ask the US government to urgently investigate the video and apply the most severe punishment to anyone found guilty in this crime,” he added.
Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Taliban in Southern Afghanistan said watching the video made him feel ashamed.
“How brutal are they? First they try to piss on them and their other crime is that they are filming it for fun These kinds of activities with the dead bodies of Mujahideen, it actually make their defeat more possible and they will get defeated soon.
“No religion in the world will allow someone to do this,” he said.
The row over the video erupted as senior American officials prepared to resume talks with Taliban figures following a deal to allow the insurgents to open a representative office in Qatar to facilitate further negotiations. President Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman is expected to meet President Karzai next week to win his backing for a new round of talks.
The talks are expected to focus on the release of a number of key Taliban figures detained at Guantanamo Bay to kick-start a peace process. They will aim to overcome mutual hostility between President Karzai and the Taliban to enable an 'Afghan-led process’ to begin. Some of those released could be transferred to Qater, sources close to the talks believe.
American officials will also aim to persuade the Taliban leadership to dissociate from al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups — its refusal to do so immediately after the September 11 2001 attacks on the United States led to the NATO invasion of Afghanistan and the ousting of the Taliban government.
German officials, who initially brokered the latest talks in Qatar believe the Taliban may now be ready to contemplate such a move, but only much later in negotiations.