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Update: US soldier kills 16 Afghans as crisis deepens

Reuters cites witnesses who say American soldiers were laughing and appeared drunk during the attack.

Soldiers with the Afghan National Army in Kandahar province
Soldiers with the Afghan National Army in Kandahar province
Image: Anja Niedringhaus/AP/Press Association Images

Updated 18.59

AN AMERICAN SOLDIER opened fire on villagers near his base in southern Afghanistan earlier today and killed 16 civilians. Nine children and three women were among the dead.

President Hamid Karzai has furiously demanded an explanation from Washington for what he called an “assassination”.

The attack began around 3am in two villages in Panjwai, a rural suburb of Kandahar and a traditional Taliban stronghold where coalition forces have fought for control for years. The villages – Balandi and Alkozai – are about 500 metre from a US base.

The gunman went into three houses and opened fire, said Abdul Baqi, a resident of Alkozai, who cited accounts from his neighbours.

“When it was happening in the middle of the night, we were inside our houses. I heard gunshots and then silence and then gunshots again,” Baqi said.

Eleven of those killed were members of one family, many of them women and children.

Reuters reports that witnesses have described how the attack was carried out by American soldiers who appeared drunk and were laughing.

Deepening crisis

The killing spree has deepened a crisis between US forces and their Afghan hosts over Americans burning Muslim holy books on a base in Afghanistan last month. The burnings sparked weeks of violent protests and attacks that left some 30 dead. Six US service members have been killed by their Afghan colleagues since the Quran burnings came to light, and the violence had just started to calm down.

“This is an assassination, an intentional killing of innocent civilians and cannot be forgiven,” Karzai said in a statement. He said he has repeatedly demanded the US stop killing Afghan civilians.

President Barack Obama called the attack “tragic and shocking” and offered his condolences to the families of those killed. In a statement released by the White House, he vowed “to get the facts as quickly as possible and to hold accountable anyone responsible.”

The violence over the Quran burnings had already spurred calls in the US for a faster exit strategy from the 10-year-old Afghan war. Obama even said recently that “now is the time for us to transition.” But he also said he had no plan to change the current timetable that has Afghans taking control of security countrywide by the end of 2014.

In the wake of the Quran burnings, the top US commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, visited troops at a base that was attacked last month and urged them not to give in to the impulse for revenge.

The tensions between the two countries had appeared to be easing as recently as Friday, when the US and Afghan governments signed a memorandum of understanding about the transfer of Afghan detainees to Afghan control – a key step toward an eventual strategic partnership to govern US forces in the country.

Today’s shooting could push that agreement further away.

“This is a fatal hammer blow on the US military mission in Afghanistan. Whatever sliver of trust and credibility we might have had following the burnings of the Quran is now gone,” said David Cortright, the director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and an advocate for a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan.

This may have been the act of a lone, deranged soldier. But the people of Afghanistan will see it for what it was, a wanton massacre of innocent civilians.

Lone Shooting?

Some villagers questioned whether a single soldier could have killed so many people. But a US official in Washington said the American, an Army staff sergeant, was believed to have acted alone and that initial reports indicated he returned to the base after the shooting and turned himself in.

Five people were wounded in the pre-dawn attack, including a 15-year-old boy named Rafiullah who was shot in the leg and spoke to Karzai over the telephone. He described how the American soldier entered his house in the middle of the night, woke up his family and began shooting them, according to Karzai’s statement.

NATO officials apologised for the shootings but did not confirm that anyone was killed, referring instead to reports of deaths.

“This deeply appalling incident in no way represents the values of ISAF and coalition troops or the abiding respect we feel for the Afghan people,” Allen said in a statement, using the abbreviation for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.

He pledged a “rapid and thorough investigation” and vowed to ensure that “anyone who is found to have committed wrongdoing is held fully accountable.”

NATO spokesman Justin Brockhoff said a US service member had been detained at a NATO base as the alleged shooter. The wounded people were evacuated to NATO medical facilities, he added.

Reaction from Taliban

The Taliban called the shootings the latest sign that international forces are working against the Afghan people.

“The so-called American peace keepers have once again quenched their thirst with the blood of innocent Afghan civilians in Kandahar province,” the Taliban said in a statement posted on a website used by the insurgent group.

Karzai said he was sending a high-level delegation to investigate.

-Additional reporting by Sinéad O’Carroll

More: Six British soldiers killed in Afghanistan>

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