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U.S. troops charged with murder of Afghan civilians

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Twelve U.S. soldiers have been charged with gruesome crimes in Afghanistan ranging from murdering civilians to keeping body parts as war trophies -- revelations that the Pentagon said on Thursday damaged America's image around the world.

The infantry soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade based in Washington state deployed to Kandahar province a year ago and the murders occurred between January and March, according to charges by army prosecutors made public this week.

"Allegations like this are ... very serious," Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told a news briefing.

"Clearly, even if these allegations are proved to be untrue, it is unhelpful. It does not help the perceptions of our forces around the world."

Morrell declined to comment on the specifics of the charges because the case is still in the military justice system.

Five soldiers were charged in June with the murder of three Afghan civilians in Kandahar province.

But new charges disclosed to the media on Wednesday show seven others have also been charged in the case and face accusations that include conspiracy to cover-up the crime.

An Army spokeswoman said four of the soldiers have been charged for keeping body parts, which beyond finger bones and a skull include leg bones and a human tooth. It was unclear where the remains had come from based on the charge sheets.

Morrell said the allegations had yet to be proven, but were "serious nonetheless."

"They are, I think you all would agree, an aberration in terms of the behavior of our forces, if true, around the world," he said.

"We've got 150,000 men and women deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan right now whose mission is to protect the Iraqi and Afghan people," he said. "They are risking their lives to protect the Iraqi and Afghan people.

"So I don't believe the allegations here against those few individuals are representative of the behavior or the attitudes of the entire force," Morrell said.

The charges, whether ultimately proven true or not, had already damaged the U.S. military's reputation, he said.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart, Editing by Anthony Boadle)

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