Several human rights groups have asked whistleblower website WikiLeaks to erase the names of Afghan civilians from the thousands of classified documents which include details of Afghanis who helped US forces in fighting the Taliban.
A group of five human rights organisations is pressing WikiLeaks for redacting the names of Afghanis from the war documents it is publishing, fearing that the website's actions could jeopardise the safety of Afghans who assisted the US military.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the letter from the rights groups has sparked a tense exchange and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has challenged the organisations to help with the massive task of removing names from thousands of documents.
WikiLeaks has already published 76,000 of the documents and plans to publish up to 15,000 more. Some of the published documents included names that critics, including the US defence department, claim could lead to harm for Afghans seen as helping the US war effort.
The Pentagon last week asked WikiLeaks to return all the classified Afghan war documents it has.
The human rights groups involved are Amnesty International, Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), Open Society Institute (OSI), Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and the Kabul office of the International Crisis Group (ICG).
The groups e-mailed WikiLeaks expressing concern for the safety of Afghans identified as helping the US military in documents obtained by WikiLeaks.
"We have seen the negative, sometimes deadly ramifications for those Afghans identified as working for or sympathising with international forces," the human rights groups wrote in their letter, according to a person familiar with the document.
"We strongly urge your volunteers and staff to analyse all documents to ensure that those containing identifying information are taken down or redacted."
In his response, Assange asked what the groups were doing to analyse the documents already published, and asked whether Amnesty in particular would provide staff to help redact the names of Afghan civilians, the daily said citing people familiar with the reply.
An Amnesty official replied that while the group has limited resources, it wouldn't rule out the idea of helping. The official suggested that Assange and the human-rights groups hold a conference call to discuss the matter.
Assange then replied: "I'm very busy and have no time to deal with people who prefer to do nothing but cover their asses. If Amnesty does nothing I shall issue a press release highlighting its refusal," according to people familiar with the exchange.
Later, WikiLeaks posted on its Twitter account: "Pentagon wants to bankrupt us by refusing to assist review. Media won't take responsibility. Amnesty won't. What to do?"
WikiLeaks, however, declined to comment on the exchange with the human rights groups.
Taliban commanders have said that they are combing the leaked documents in order to punish people who have helped US forces.
Human rights groups say they are increasingly worried about the execution of Afghan civilians by the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
The AIHRC published figures this week showing that such executions have soared in the first seven months of this year to 197 from 225 in all of 2009.
Nader Nadery, senior commissioner of the AIHRC, said the civilians executed are often people who support the Afghan government, or their family members. Some of these people "may have come into contact with the US or other international forces," he said.
He said the AIHRC signed the letter to WikiLeaks. He said he and his colleagues "appreciate the efforts by WikiLeaks" to highlight some previously unreported aspects of the war, but worry that "having the names of the individuals with the location of their village and specific info about them... will enable the Taliban to develop another hit list."
CIVIC, OSI and ICG also confirmed that they signed the letter.