Sunday, March 11, 2012

U.S. Sergeant Is Said to Kill 16 Civilians in Afghanistan

PANJWAI, Afghanistan — 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.

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. At the first, the man gathered 11 bodies, including those of four girls younger than 6, and set fire to them, villagers said.

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 apparently unprovoked killings added to a feeling of siege here among Western personnel. Officials described a growing sense of concern over a cascading series 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.

President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack, calling it in a statement an “inhuman and intentional act” and demanding justice. Both President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta called Mr. Karzai, expressing condolences and promising thorough investigations. “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,” Mr. Obama said in a statement.

American officials in Kabul were scrambling to understand what had happened, and appealed for calm, at a moment when the United States and Afghanistan are in tense negotiations on the terms of the long-term American presence in the country.

The officials gave no details about the suspected killer other than to describe him as an Army staff sergeant who was acting alone and who had surrendered himself for arrest. “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.

A senior American military official said Sunday evening that the sergeant was attached to a unit based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Wash., and that he had been part of what is called a village stabilization operation in Afghanistan. In those operations, teams of Green Berets, supported by other soldiers, try to develop close ties with village elders, organize local police units and track down Taliban leaders. The official said the sergeant was not a Green Beret himself, and had been deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan at least once before his current tour of duty.

In Panjwai, a reporter for The New York Times who inspected bodies that had been taken to the nearby American military base counted 16 dead, and saw burns on some of the children’s legs and heads. “All the family members were killed, the dead put in a room, and blankets were put over the corpses and they were burned,” said Anar Gula, an elderly neighbor who rushed to the house after the soldier had left. “We put out the fire.”

The villagers also brought some of the burned blankets on motorbikes to display at the base, Camp Belambay, in Kandahar, and show that the bodies had been set alight. Soon, more than 300 people had gathered outside to protest.

At least five other Afghans were wounded in the attacks, officials said, some of them seriously, indicating the death toll could rise. NATO said several casualties were being treated at a military hospital.

One of the survivors from the attack, Abdul Hadi, 40, said he was at home when a soldier broke down the door.

“My father went out to find out what was happening, and he was killed,” he said. “I was trying to go out and find out about the shooting, but someone told me not to move, and I was covered by the women in my family in my room, so that is why I survived.”

Mr. Hadi said there was more than one soldier involved in the attack, and at least five other villagers described seeing a number of soldiers, and also a helicopter and flares at the scene. But that claim was unconfirmed — other Afghan residents described seeing only one gunman — and it was unclear whether extra troops had been sent out to the village after the attack to catch the suspect.

In a measure of the mounting levels of mistrust between Afghans and the coalition, however, many Afghans, including lawmakers and other officials, said they believed that the attack had been planned and were incredulous that one American soldier could have carried out such an attack without help. In his statement, Mr. Karzai said “American forces” had entered the houses in Panjwai, but at another point he said the killings were the act of an individual soldier.

Others called for calm. Abdul Hadi Arghandihwal, the minister of economy and the leader of Hezb-e-Islami, a major Afghan political party with Islamist leanings, said there would probably be new protests. But he said the killings should be seen as the act of an individual and not of the United States.

“It is not the decision of the Army officer to order somebody to do something like this,” he said. “Probably there are going to be many demonstrations, but it will not change the decisions of our government about our relationship with the United States.”

Elsewhere, news of the killings was spreading only slowly. Other than the protest at the base in Kandahar, there were no immediate signs of the fury that fueled rioting across the country after the burning of Korans by American military personnel in February.

Both the United States Embassy in Kabul, which immediately urged caution among Americans traveling or living in Afghanistan, and the military coalition rushed to head off any further outrage, deploring the attack, offering condolences for the families and promising the soldier would be brought to justice. Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, the NATO spokesman, expressed his “deep sadness” and said that while the motive for the attack was not yet clear, it looked like an isolated episode.

“I am not linking this to the recent incidents over the recent days and weeks,” he said. “It looks very much like an individual act. We have to look into the background behind it.”

Adding to the sense of concern, the killings came two days after an episode in Kapisa Province, in eastern Afghanistan, in which NATO helicopters apparently hunting Taliban insurgents instead fired on civilians, killing four and wounding another three, Afghan officials said. About 1,200 demonstrators marched in protest in Kapisa on Saturday.

The quick American move on Sunday to detain the gunman could help to avoid a repeat of last month’s unrest. The reaction to the Koran-burning case revealed a huge cultural gap between the Americans, who saw it as an unfortunate mistake, and the Afghans, who viewed it as a crime and wanted to see those responsible tried as criminals.

Both the Afghans and Americans agreed on the severity of Sunday’s killings, and General Jacobson said the case would be aggressively pursued by American legal authorities.

It was less clear how the attack would affect the talks between Kabul and Washington, known as strategic partnership talks, which will define the American presence and role in the country after the drawdown of combat troops. The upheaval provoked by the Koran burnings led to a near-breakdown in those talks, but they appeared tentatively back on track after a deal struck on Friday for the Afghans to assume control of the main coalition prison in six months.

The strategic partnership talks must still address differences over the American campaign of night raids on Afghan houses. The attack on Sunday may complicate that issue, because it bore some similarities to the night raids carried out by coalition forces in Afghanistan.

The shootings also carried some echoes of an attack in March 2007 in eastern Afghanistan, when several Marines opened fire with automatic weapons, killing as many as 19 civilians after a suicide car bomb struck the Marines’ convoy, wounding one Marine.

Panjwai, a rural suburb of Kandahar, was traditionally a Taliban stronghold. It was a focus of the United States military offensive in 2010 and was the scene of heavy fighting. In recent weeks, two American soldiers were killed by small-arms fire on the same day, March 1, in the area, and three died in a roadside bomb attack in February.



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