White House Press Secretary Jay Carney gestures as he speaks in the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington on Monday. (AP)
By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: Mar 12, 2012 23:08 Updated: Mar 12, 2012 23:08
KANDAHAR: An Afghan youth recounted yesterday the terrifying scene in his home as a lone US soldier moved stealthily through it during a killing spree, then crouched down and shot his father in the thigh as he stepped out of the bedroom.
The soldier, now in US custody, is accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians in their homes in the middle of the night between Saturday and Sunday and then burning some of their corpses. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said nine of those killed were children and three were women.
“He was walking around taking up positions in the house – in two or three places like he was searching,” said 26-year-old witness Mohammad Zahir, who watched the gunman while hiding in another room. “He was on his knees when he shot my father” in the thigh, he said. His father was wounded but survived.
Even before the shootings, anti-Americanism was already boiling in Afghanistan over US troops burning Muslim holy books, including Qur’ans, last month on an American base. The burnings came to light soon after a video purporting to show four Marines urinating on Taleban corpses was posted on the Internet in January.
Now, another wave of anti-foreigner hatred could threaten the entire future of the US-led coalition’s mission in Afghanistan. The recent events have not only infuriated Afghanistan’s people and leaders, but have also raised doubts among US political figures that the long and costly war is worth the sacrifice in lives and money.
Zahir recounted the harrowing scene in his family home when the soldier came in before dawn.
“I heard a gunshot. When I came out of my room, somebody entered our house. He was in a NATO forces uniform. I didn’t see his face because it was dark,” he said.
Zahir said he quickly went into another room in the house, where animals are penned.
“After that, I saw him moving to different areas of the house – like he was searching,” he said.
His father, unarmed, then took a few steps out of his bedroom door, Zahir recalled.
“He was not holding anything – not even a cup of tea,” Zahir said. Then he fired.
“My mother was pulling my father into the room. I put a cloth on his wound,” he said.
After the gunman left, Zahir said he heard gunshots near the house again. He stayed in hiding for a few minutes to make sure he was gone.
The shooting rampage unfolded in two villages near a US base in southern Kandahar province. An enraged Karzai called it “an assassination, an intentional killing of innocent civilians” that cannot be forgiven. He demanded an explanation from Washington.
Tensions between Afghanistan and the United States rocketed last month after word of the Qur’an burnings got out. President Barack Obama said the burnings were a mistake and apologized.
But the strains had appeared to be easing as recently as Friday, when the two 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.
In Afghanistan’s parliament yesterday, however, lawmakers called for a halt to negotiations on the strategic partnership document until it is clear that soldier behind the shooting rampage is facing justice in Afghanistan.
“We said to Karzai: If you sign that document, you are betraying your country,” said Shikiba Ashimi, a parliamentarian from Kandahar. “The US should be very careful. It is sabotaging the atmosphere of this strategic partnership.” Still the public response to the shootings so far has been calmer than the six days of violent protests and clashes that erupted after Qur’ans were burned at Bagram Air Field. There were no signs of protests yesterday.
Afghan forces also turned their guns on their supposed allies in the aftermath of the Qur’an burnings, killing six US troops.
US-led forces in Afghanistan have stepped up security following the shootings out of concern about retaliatory attacks. The US Embassy has also warned American citizens in Afghanistan about the possibility of reprisals. As standard practice, the coalition increased security following the shootings out of concern about retaliatory attacks, said German Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, a coalition spokesman.
The suspect in the shootings, who is in US military custody, is a staff sergeant who has been in the military for 11 years. He is married with two children. He served three tours in Iraq and began his first deployment to Afghanistan in December, according to a senior US official.
He is from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, and was assigned to support a special operations unit of either Green Berets or Navy SEALs engaged in a village stability operation, said a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is still ongoing. Some Afghan officials and local villagers expressed doubt that a single US soldier could have carried out all the killings and burned the bodies afterward.
“It is not possible for only one American soldier to come out of his base, kill a number of people far away, burn the bodies, go to another house and kill civilians there, then walk at least 2 kms and enter another house, kill civilians and burn them,” said Abdul Rahim Ayubi, a lawmaker from Kandahar province who visited the area yesterday.
Some villagers also told officials there were multiple soldiers and heard shooting from different directions. But many others said they only saw a single soldier.
Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, another spokesman for the coalition, insisted there was only one gunman.
“There’s no indication that there was more than one shooter,” he said.
Agha Lalia, member of the Kandahar provincial council who is from Panjwai district, said he talked to two people who were injured in the shooting at a hospital at Kandahar Air Field, where they are being treated by coalition medical personnel. Both said they only saw one soldier shooting.