Stalking from home to home, a United States Army sergeant methodically killed at least 16 civilians, 9 of them children, in a rural stretch of southern Afghanistan early on Sunday, igniting fears of a new wave of anti-American hostility, Afghan and American officials said, reports The New York Times.
Residents of three villages in the Panjwai district of Kandahar Province described a terrifying string of attacks in which the soldier, who had walked more than a mile from his base, tried door after door, eventually breaking in to kill within three separate houses.
The man gathered 11 bodies, including those of 4 girls younger than 6, and set fire to them, villagers said.
Sunday’s attack on the civilians, the latest American public relations disaster in Afghanistan, could be a turning point for the United States, which wants to maintain advisers there as it tries to wind down the increasingly unpopular war.
The Kandahar violence came just days after the United States and Afghanistan signed a deal on the gradual transfer of a major U.S.-run detention centre to Afghan authorities, overcoming one of the main sticking points in the partnership negotiations, tells Reuters.
President Hamid Karzai condemned the attacks, calling them in a statement an “inhuman and intentional act” and demanding justice.
Karzai, whose relationship with his Western backers is fraught at the best of times, condemned the rampage as “intentional murders” and demanded an explanation. Karzai’s office released a statement quoting a villager as saying “American soldiers woke my family up and shot them in the face”.
According to The Huff Post, President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta both called Afghan President Hamid Karzai to express their condolences.
In a statement released Sunday by the White House, Obama said, “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.”
Panetta said a full investigation was already under way. “The initial reporting that we have at this time indicates there was one shooter, and we have one man in custody,” said Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a NATO spokesman.
The soldier has not been named, but is thought to be a staff sergeant, informs BBC. He is reported to have walked off his base at around 03:00 local time (22:30 GMT Saturday) and headed to nearby villages, moving methodically from house to house.
“The U.S. Embassy in Kabul alerts U.S. citizens in Afghanistan that as a result of a tragic shooting incident in Kandahar province involving a U.S. service member, there is a risk of anti-American feelings and protests in coming days, especially in the eastern and southern provinces,” the embassy said in an emergency statement on its website.
Coming after a period of deepening public outrage, spurred by the Koran burning by American personnel last month and an earlier video showing American Marines urinating on dead militants, the possibility of a violent reaction to the killings added to a feeling of siege here among Western personnel.
Officials described growing concern over a cascade of missteps and offenses that has cast doubt on the ability of NATO personnel to carry out their mission and has left troops and trainers increasingly vulnerable to violence by Afghans seeking revenge.
This is the first time Afghan civilians have been targeted by foreign soldiers in this way, the BBC’s Quentin Sommerville reports from Kabul.
However, a US soldier was convicted last year on three counts of premeditated murder after leading a rogue “kill team” in Afghanistan.