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Villages dispute kerrey { May 7 2001 }

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Villagers Dispute Kerrey's Account
Vietnamese Witnesses Say U.S. Squad Initiated Killing in '69 Raid

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 7, 2001; Page A01

THANH PHONG, Vietnam -- The underground bunker, once wide and long enough to sleep two dozen people, has collapsed and filled with dirt. A copse of banana trees and the household debris from two nearby huts cover the Hula-Hoop-size hole through which peasants in this tiny Mekong Delta village would slither to hide from U.S. or South Vietnamese troops.

No sign or plaque notes the carnage that occurred here on a February night 32 years ago, when a seven-member Navy SEAL team, led by Lt. Bob Kerrey, crept into Thanh Phong to raid a meeting of local Viet Cong leaders. They never found the meeting, but by the time the elite commandos left the hamlet, more than a dozen unarmed women and children lay dead near the entrance to the bunker. More dead fell nearby.

Former senator Kerrey, who was awarded a Bronze Star on the basis of a false report that his squad killed 21 Viet Cong in the attack, has recently acknowledged that his unit killed women and children that night in a confluence of events he has called "an atrocity." Kerrey and five of his team members have maintained, however, that they shot at the villagers, who were about 100 yards away, only after receiving enemy fire. A former Viet Cong fighter who lives in the village told The Washington Post on Saturday that there were Communist officials in Thanh Phong that night, including a local leader who presumably was the target of the SEAL mission.

But the former fighter, and two women who claim to have witnessed portions of the operation, described in interviews on Saturday a version of events very different from Kerrey's, although their stories have some inconsistencies. One of the witnesses, Bui Thi Luom, who was 12 at the time, said the Americans ordered her and the 15 other people who were in the bunker to crawl out and sit together on the ground. Then, after admonishing a woman not to cough, the commandos opened fire from close range on the group, which included her grandmother, a pregnant aunt and three younger siblings, Luom said.

"I thought they would let us go after they saw we were only women and children," said Luom, who said she managed to slip back into the bunker just as the shooting began. "But they shot at us like animals."

Luom said nobody fired on the Americans before they initiated the fatal barrage. She and another woman in the village who said they saw part of the attack insisted that there was no Viet Cong activity in Thanh Phong that night.

The former Viet Cong guerrilla, Tran Van Rung, said in a separate interview that about five local Viet Cong officials were there, gathered in a bunker about a quarter-mile from Luom's. Rung said the members of the group, which included the senior Viet Cong leader in Thanh Phong who likely was the target of Kerrey's mission, were sleeping when they heard gunfire.

Rung, 53, who spoke to a foreign journalist for the first time on Saturday, said he was one of 11 guerrillas assigned to protect the leaders. He insisted that all the Viet Cong fighters in the village were stationed in and around the leader's bunker and that none of them fired on the SEALs.

"We didn't leave the bunker," he said, sipping green tea in front of a neighbor's house. "We didn't provoke the Americans."

Armed only with bolt-action rifles and a few grenades, Rung said, the 11 fighters did not attempt to respond to the gunfire because they believed they would have been "no match for the Americans."

A spokesman for Kerrey, Michael Powell, said yesterday that "the fact that he said there were Viet Cong in that village that night merely confirms what Kerrey and his SEAL teammates have been saying all along: that this was a dangerous mission. Their intent was to take out those Viet Cong, not the people who were ultimately killed."

The killing of civilians by Kerrey's unit was first reported by the New York Times and the CBS News program "60 Minutes II," which jointly conducted a 2 1/2-year investigation into the incident. The Times and CBS interviewed a member of Kerrey's team, Gerhard Klann, whose recollection of the raid is similar to the accounts of the two Vietnamese women.

Kerrey, 57, a Nebraska Democrat who left the Senate in January after two terms and now is president of the New School University in New York, has vehemently denied Klann's description. "No one else in the squad has that memory," Kerrey said.

In response to questions from The Post yesterday, Powell added that "Bob never gave an order to round up villagers and execute them. That would have been a war crime."

In a speech to ROTC candidates at Virginia Military Institute last month, however, Kerrey acknowledged using "lethal procedures when there was doubt."

"It was a tragedy, and I had ordered it," he said. "Though it could be justified militarily, I could never make my own peace with what happened that night. I have been haunted by it for 32 years."

An Elusive Enemy
Kerrey, who arrived in Vietnam as a 25-year-old lieutenant, was fond of telling people that he wanted to serve with "a knife in my teeth." His SEAL team, unofficially dubbed Kerrey's Raiders, was inexperienced but eager, embarking on the Thanh Phong raid after just a month in the country.

SEALs (which stands for Sea, Air and Land units) are the Navy's best of the best, the toughest of the toughest, trained to spend hours underwater and operate covertly behind enemy lines. In Vietnam in the late 1960s, the commandos' task was to skulk through the rice paddies and dense woodlands of the Mekong Delta to kidnap and kill leaders of the National Liberation Front -- known as the Viet Cong -- the communist insurgency that sought to overthrow the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government.

Although SEAL teams were small -- seven men were about average -- they carried an arsenal of firepower. Kerrey's unit, for instance, was armed with M-16 assault rifles, knives, 9mm handguns, grenades and grenade launchers, and disposable rocket launchers similar to bazookas. They used all those weapons that night in 1969.

The Viet Cong were an elusive enemy. They wore the same black pajama-like garments as farmers. Their ranks included women and children. During the day, they would join other peasants toiling in rice paddies. At night, they would silently troll through the jungle, hiding in an extensive network of tunnels and bunkers from where they would launch pinprick attacks on U.S. and South Vietnamese forces.

For the SEALs in particular, gathering intelligence about the location of Viet Cong leaders they hoped to kill proved an extremely frustrating experience, with a high failure rate. "It was literally pin the tail on the donkey," said a former SEAL who served in the Mekong just before Kerrey arrived. "Half the time you ended up in the wrong place. And even if you got to the right place, it might have been the wrong time."

Located about a mile from the South China Sea and even closer to one of the delta fingers of the mighty Mekong River, Thanh Phong was a strategic outpost for the Viet Cong. Beginning in 1964, it was a key delivery point for weapons and supplies from North Vietnam that were distributed along rivers and jungle trails to guerrillas across the South.

The poor farmers and fishermen who lived in Thanh Phong, about 60 miles south of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, were mostly Viet Cong, according to residents here. The Americans and South Vietnamese made the entire area a "free fire zone," where U.S. and South Vietnamese troops were authorized to fire on anyone they encountered. This created a Wild West-like shooting gallery, which prompted many villagers, even those who were not active in the guerrilla movement, to dig bunkers near their bamboo-and-palm-frond huts.

Kerrey's unit first came here on Feb. 13, 1969, to look for the senior Viet Cong leader in the area, known as the village secretary. At the time, the surrounding area was part of the U.S. 9th Infantry's Division's "Operation Speedy Express," designed to eliminate the entrenched Viet Cong. According to a 1972 investigation by Newsweek, thousands of civilians were killed in the operation.

On that visit, Kerrey's team interrogated several residents about the secretary's whereabouts, but departed without gleaning much information. The squad returned on the night of the 25th, prompted by new intelligence reports indicating the secretary would be there.

Arriving on a swift 50-foot, aluminum-sided boat from their base at the port of Vung Tau shortly before midnight, the SEALs crept toward the village. But as they neared Thanh Phong, they encountered a "hooch" -- a peasant hut -- that wasn't included in their intelligence report.

Inconsistent Accounts
Pham Thi Lanh said she climbed out of her bunker as soon as she heard the first scream. Lanh, who was 30, thought the noise came from an elderly couple's hut nearby. She said she gingerly approached and hid behind a clump of banana trees. From there, she said, she saw "the American troops" nearly decapitate the couple, Bui Van Vat and his wife, Luu Thi Canh. According to the headstones on their graves in the village cemetery, he was 65 and she was 62.

"I saw the troops cut their necks," Lanh said. "They cut almost all the way through."

Lanh said she then ran back to her bunker, where her four children were sleeping. She said she stuffed their mouths with cloth to keep them quiet.

The elderly couple had been living with three young grandchildren, whom villagers found stabbed to death the next morning. Although Lanh earlier said she witnessed all five killings, she said on Saturday that she had seen only the first two. She contended, however, that she heard the grandchildren being stabbed.

Lanh, who cuts wood for a living, told "60 Minutes II" that her late husband was a Viet Cong fighter, but she recanted that assertion in subsequent interviews.

Government officials arranged the interviews with Lanh and others in Thanh Phong. They were attended by a provincial officer and a Foreign Ministry representative, who served as an interpreter. Lanh and Luom provided a similar account to a group of foreign journalists who were allowed to visit the village on April 28.

Lanh's version of the killings at the hooch is similar to the one Klann provided to the Times, in which he said an older man, a woman about the same age and three children under 12 were stabbed to death.

Kerrey, who has said that he did not look inside the hooch or participate in those first killings, said his team told him that there were five men in the hut -- all of whom were killed. He and his supporters question Lanh's account, noting her shifting story and the fact she initially said she was married to a Viet Cong fighter.

Kerrey and the other squad members besides Klann issued a statement in which they said they worried that the hooch may have been a warning post, so they resorted to "lethal methods to keep our presence from being detected."

After dispensing with the first hooch, the squad made its way to the center of the village. Everyone, including Kerrey, has given inconsistent accounts about what happened from then on.

In the statement, Kerrey and the five other SEALs said they "took fire" from enemy forces. Kerrey has estimated that the team was about 100 yards from the hooches, at the village center, when the shooting started.

But in one of his interviews with the Times, Kerrey said he could not be absolutely certain that shots were fired. "I don't know if it's noise," he said.

According to an "after-action report" kept by the Naval Historical Office, presumably based on a report filed by Kerrey when he returned to base, the commandos returned fire, blasting 1,200 rounds from their M-16s, 12 rocket-propelled grenades and two bazooka shells in the direction from which the shots seemed to come.

In his interview with the Times, Kerrey said he and his squad eventually made their way to the cluster of hooches. "I was expecting to find Viet Cong soldiers with weapons, dead," he said. "Instead I found women and children."

But in the statement, the members of the group provided a different account, saying that they "withdrew" from the village "while continuing to fire."

Kerrey has described the night as black and moonless, but witnesses said they remember dim moonlight that allowed for limited visibility. According to records kept by the U.S. Naval Observatory, a partial moon -- a 60 percent disk -- was out until 1:30 that morning, an hour after the squad reported leaving the village.

The descriptions provided by Luom and Klann about how the women and children died are different, and both are markedly at odds with Kerrey's. Klann contends that the team rounded up women and children from a group of hooches on the fringes of the village and interrogated them about the whereabouts of the village secretary. Luom, however, said all the women and children who were killed came from one bunker. She said the SEALs ordered everyone to exit the shelter and sit in a tightly packed group near the entrance.

Seeing that the SEALs were not about to let the villagers go, Luom said her grandmother began pleading for mercy. A few seconds later, she said, the firing began. The Americans were about three feet away when they started shooting, she said.

Klann said Kerrey gave the order to shoot the women and children, and that the firing began with the soldiers standing between six and 10 feet away. Klann said the squad decided to kill the villagers because they felt they could not take them as prisoners and they worried that if they let them go, they might alert Viet Cong fighters before the team was safely on the boat. Kerrey and the other members of the unit have disputed Klann's account.

Kerrey's spokesman, Powell, said yesterday that the team started shooting only after receiving fire from the village.

Luom said she escaped being killed by jumping back into the bunker just before the shooting started. "I have no idea how I got down into the bunker so fast," she said. "Maybe God blessed me to be a survivor."

Luom, who now lives in a nearby village, said she had not heard about the controversy over the killings until a week ago, when she met with foreign journalists. She said she does not read newspapers because she is illiterate and does not watch television because she spends most of her time working on a fishing boat. As a condition of the interview, the Vietnamese government required The Washington Post and the Associated Press to jointly pay for Luom's travel costs from her offshore fishing boat to Thanh Phong -- about $30.

Today, this village is home to about 350 families, and is surrounded by verdant rice paddies, palms and banana trees. Most people grow rice or work on shrimp farms. Electricity came a few years ago, allowing a few prosperous families to install television sets.

Until a week ago, nobody talked much about what happened in February 1969. "This sort of thing was very common during the war," said Vo Ngoc Chau, a fisherman and former Viet Cong guerrilla who still walks around with a green military helmet. "There were so many innocent people who were killed."

No one here spoke angrily about the United States. "There was a time when I wanted to take revenge on Americans," Luom said. "I bore a lot of hatred toward them." Now, she said, she would just like an acknowledgment of responsibility. "They should admit what they did," she said. "And they should apologize to us."

Staff writers Robert G. Kaiser and Michael Grunwald in Washington contributed to this report.

2001 The Washington Post Company

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