Four U.S. contractors affiliated with the company formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide fired on an approaching civilian vehicle in Kabul this month, wounding at least two Afghan civilians, according to the company and the U.S. military.
The off-duty contractors were involved in a car accident around 9 p.m. on May 5 and then fired on the approaching vehicle, which they believed to be a threat, according to the U.S. military. At least some of the men, who were former military personnel, had been allegedly drinking alcohol that evening, according to a person familiar with the incident. Off-duty contractors aren't supposed to carry weapons or drink alcohol.
The incident occurred at a delicate time for the U.S., which faces rising outrage from Afghan leaders over civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes. For Xe, which is the name Blackwater chose this year to distance itself from its controversial security work in Iraq, the shooting comes as the Obama administration and Defense Secretary Robert Gates reconsider the role of military contractors, a practice that boomed during the Bush years.
The contractors were trainers hired by Paravant LLC, a subsidiary of Xe. Paravant has terminated contracts with the four men "for failure to comply with the terms of their contract," according to Xe spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell. "Contractual and or legal violations will not be tolerated," she said.
The contractors were ordered not to leave Afghanistan without permission of the Defense Department, she said, and the company said it is cooperating with authorities.
The U.S. military is investigating the incident, according to a May 7 news release that didn't name the company involved. The statement also said two Afghans received hospital treatment for their wounds.
Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S., Said Jawad, said he is still waiting to learn the details from his Interior Ministry. "Blackwater has reached out to us and offered compensation to the families of the victims," he said. "The embassy has put them in touch with our Ministry of Interior."
Paravant was set up to subcontract to Raytheon Co. on a large U.S. Army training contract, according to a person familiar with the situation. Raytheon referred questions to U.S. Central Command, which runs the military effort in Afghanistan.
Large defense contractors typically rely heavily on specialized subcontractors when operating in hot spots such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Raytheon's use of Paravant is for a program called Warfighter Focus, a sweeping U.S. Army training effort valued at more than $11 billion over a 10-year period.
The incident comes at a transition point after Blackwater changed its name in February and Blackwater founder Erik Prince announced in March he was stepping back from day-to-day operations after bringing in new senior executives. The company, which has had problems with weapons-export paperwork and other back-office issues, also moved to shore up its operations after a meteoric expansion from a small training outfit founded in 1997 to the biggest U.S. private security company.
"While this kind of change does not happen overnight, we are confident that we have the right team in place to provide the best possible services to our customers," said Ms. Tyrrell.
Xe is now winding down its guard work in Iraq as the government there is effectively forcing them out after a 2007 shooting incident involving one of its State Department security teams left 17 Iraqis dead. The company is counting on offsetting that loss of business, for hundreds of millions of dollars a year, with contracts in Afghanistan doing everything from training to flying cargo for the U.S. military.
The May 5 shooting in Kabul is likely to further embolden critics of not only the company's tactics but also management of its contractors. A 2006 incident in Iraq also involved a Blackwater security contractor who shot and killed a bodyguard for Iraq's vice president on Christmas Eve.
-Yochi J. Dreazen and Siobhan Gorman contributed to this article.