One or more U.S. soldiers shot dead 16 civilians, including nine children according to Afghan officials, in Afghanistan's south on Sunday in what witnesses described as a massacre. NATO said they had detained one U.S. soldier in the killings. U.S. officials said the soldier was a staff sergeant.
The incident, one of the worst of its kind since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, quickly inflamed the severely strained relations between Washington and Kabul. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said anti-U.S. reprisals were possible following the killings, which come weeks after U.S. soldiers burned copies of the Koran at a NATO base, triggering widespread anti-Western protests in which at least 30 people died.
Neighbors and relatives of the dead said they had seen a group of U.S. soldiers arrive at their village in Kandahar's Panjwayi district at about 2 a.m., enter homes and open fire. A senior U.S. defense official in Washington rejected witness accounts that several apparently drunk soldiers were involved. "Based on the preliminary information we have this account is flatly wrong," the official said. "We believe one U.S. service member acted alone, not a group of U.S. soldiers."
An Afghan man who said his children were killed in the shooting spree accused soldiers of later burning the bodies. U.S. President Barack Obama said he was deeply saddened. "This incident is tragic and shocking and does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan," Obama said in a statement.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the rampage as "intentional murders" and demanded an explanation from the United States. His office said the dead included nine children and three women. Afghan officials gave varying accounts of the number of shooters involved in the incident. Karzai's office released a statement quoting a villager as saying "American soldiers woke my family up and shot them in the face."
Minister of Border and Tribal Affairs Asadullah Khalid said a U.S. soldier had burst into three homes near his base in the middle of the night, killing a total of 16 people including 11 people in the first house. A spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said the U.S. soldier "walked back to the base and turned himself into U.S. Forces this morning," adding there had been no military operations taking place in the area when the incident occurred.
Panjwayi district is about 35 km (22 miles) west of the provincial capital Kandahar city. The district is considered the spiritual home of the Taliban and has been a hive of insurgent activity in recent years. "I saw that all 11 of my relatives were killed, including my children and grandchildren," said a weeping Haji Samad, who said he had left his home a day earlier.
The walls of the house were blood-splattered. "They (Americans) poured chemicals over their dead bodies and burned them," Samad told Reuters at the scene. Neighbors said they had awoken to crackling gunfire from American soldiers, who they described as laughing and drunk. "They were all drunk and shooting all over the place," said neighbor Agha Lala, who visited one of the homes where killings took place. "Their (the victims') bodies were riddled with bullets."
A senior U.S. defense official said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta "was deeply saddened to hear last night of this incident and is closely monitoring reports out of Afghanistan."
Panetta offered his condolences to Karzai. "I condemn such violence and am shocked and saddened that a U.S. service member is alleged to be involved, clearly acting outside his chain of command," Panetta said in a statement. "A full investigation is already under way. A suspect is in custody and I gave President Karzai my assurances that we will bring those responsible to justice."
The Afghan Taliban said it would take revenge for the deaths, in an emailed statement to media. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said an investigation was under way and that "the individual or individuals responsible for this act will be identified and brought to justice." The commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) General John Allen said he was "shocked and saddened" by the shooting and promised a rapid investigation.
Civilian casualties have been a major source of friction between Karzai's Western-backed government and U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan. NATO is preparing to hand over all security responsibilities to Afghans by the end of 2014, a process which has already started.
The Koran burning and the violence that followed, including a spate of deadly attacks against U.S. soldiers, underscored the challenges that the West faces as it prepares to withdraw. All foreign combat troops are scheduled to leave by end-2014.
(Reporting by Ahmad Nadem and Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman)