NEW YORK—A former Taliban commander previously accused of kidnapping an American journalist pleaded not guilty on Friday to murdering three U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan in 2008, telling a federal judge that the “accusations are incorrect.”
Haji Najibullah, 45, appeared in federal court in Manhattan to enter the plea after prosecutors last week unveiled new charges against the accused former Taliban commander in Afghanistan’s Wardak Province, adjacent to Kabul.
The indictment alleged that Taliban fighters under Najibullah’s command attacked a U.S. military convoy, killing U.S. Army Sergeants First Class Matthew Hilton and Joseph McKay, Sergeant Mark Palmateer, and their unnamed Afghan interpreter.
Najibullah—wearing a beige button-down short-sleeve shirt, a white skullcap, and a white mask over his beard—entered the courtroom handcuffed and with a chain around his waist before pleading not guilty to terrorism-related offenses.
If convicted, he could face life in prison.
Najibullah is charged with 13 counts, including providing material support for acts of terrorism resulting in death, murdering U.S. nationals, kidnapping and hostage-taking.
“These accusations are incorrect,” Najibullah said through a Pashto language interpreter. “None of these belong to me. There are many other stories behind this.”
The Taliban in August retook power in Afghanistan, almost 20 years after being ousted in a U.S.-led invasion. Washington is pressing the Taliban to release a kidnapped American and to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a hotbed for extremist groups.
Senior U.S. and Taliban officials held their first face-to-face meeting in Doha, Qatar, over the weekend.
The latest indictment comes a year after prosecutors accused Najibullah of kidnapping an American journalist in 2008.
Though prosecutors did not identify the journalist, a law enforcement official familiar with the matter told Reuters last year that the case involved David Rohde. Rohde, a Pulitzer Prize winner who is now at The New Yorker magazine and previously worked for Reuters and the New York Times, escaped in 2009.
By Luc Cohen