Mar 11, 2012

U.S. Soldier Kills 16 Afghan Civilians

U.S. Soldier Kills 16 Afghan Civilians, An American soldier went on a house-to-house shooting spree in two villages in southern Afghanistan early Sunday, Afghan officials said, killing 16 people in what Afghanistan's president called an "unforgivable" crime.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force said the soldier acted alone and turned himself in to his commanders after opening fire on civilians. U.S. President Barack Obama called the killings "tragic and shocking," and offered his condolences to the Afghan people.

But Afghan President Hamid Karzai called the killings "unforgivable," and the attack is likely to further more anger at international forces following deadly riots over the burning of Qurans by U.S. troops.

"The Afghan people can with withstand a lot of pain," Prince Ali Seraj, the head of the National Coalition for Dialogue with the Tribes of Afghanistan, told CNN. "They can withstand collateral damage. They can withstand night raids. But murder is something that they totally abhor, and when that happens, they really want justice."

Haji Agha Lali, a member of the provincial council, told CNN the soldier had attacked four houses in the villages of Alokozai and Barakzai. And in a statement issued by his office, Karzai said the dead included four men, three women and nine children, with another five people wounded.

Capt. Justin Brockhoff, an ISAF spokesman, said the wounded Afghans were being treated in ISAF facilities. The allied command did not give its own estimate of casualties.

Brockhoff said officials do not yet have a motive for the shooting, which is under investigation by both NATO and Afghan officials. But Maj. Jason Waggoner, another ISAF spokesman, said the killings "were not the result of any operations.

"The soldier was acting on his own," Waggoner said. "After the incident, he returned to the compound and turned himself in."

The news brought a wave of condemnations from top American officials. In a statement issued by the White House, Obama said the U.S. military will "get the facts as quickly as possible and to hold accountable anyone responsible."

"I am deeply saddened by the reported killing and wounding of Afghan civilians. I offer my condolences to the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives, and to the people of Afghanistan, who have endured too much violence and suffering," 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."

In a separate statement, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he was "shocked and saddened" by the attack and said the suspect was "clearly acting outside his chain of command."

Gen. John Allen, the NATO commander, said the "deeply appalling incident in no way represents the values of ISAF and coalition troops or the abiding respect we feel for the Afghan people." And acting U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham said his country was "saddened by this violent act against our Afghan friends."

"We deplore any attack by a member of the U.S. Armed Forces against innocent civilians," he said in a video statement, assuring "the people of Afghanistan that the individual or individuals responsible for this terrible act will be identified and brought to justice."

But Seraj, a member of Afghanistan's former royal family, said the killings are likely to play into the hands of the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist movement that has battled the U.S.-led coalition for a decade.

"They are really going to milk this for all it's worth," Seraj said, adding, "This is playing right into their program of psychological warfare against the Afghan people."

The Taliban has already said that the deaths were the result of a night raid by several soldiers and put the death toll at 50, but it regularly exaggerates casualty figures.

Seraj called for a joint U.S.-Afghan investigation into the killings, saying Afghans will want to see "quick and decisive justice."

"We cannot whitewash this and get this young man out of Afghanistan and send him back to the Untied States. That is the worst thing we can do at this time," he said. And he questioned how the soldier left his post in the pre-dawn hours, adding, "I know the Kandahar base. A fly cannot get in without being searched."

The United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001, following al Qaeda's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that killed nearly 3,000 people. The invasion quickly toppled the Taliban, which ruled most of Afghanistan and had allowed al Qaeda to operate from its territory. But the militia soon regrouped and launched an insurgent campaign against the allied forces and a new government led by Karzai.

American and allied combat troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by 2014, and Karzai has been increasingly critical of the allied force. Tensions ramped up dramatically in February, after a group of U.S. soldiers burned copies of the Quran, Islam's holy book, that had been seized from inmates at the American-run prison at Bagram Air Base.

American officials from Obama down called the burning an accident and apologized for it, but riots left dozens dead, including six American troops. Hundreds more Afghans were wounded.

In Washington, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told CNN's "State of the Union" that American troops were "under tremendous pressure in Afghanistan." But the Nevada Democrat added, "No one can condone or make any suggestion that what (the service member) did was right because it was absolutely wrong."

On "Fox News Sunday," meanwhile, Sen. John McCain said: "It is one of those things that you cannot explain, except to extend your deepest sympathy to those victims and see that justice is done." McCain is the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services committee.