U.S. soldier turned himself in after killing 16 Afghans

An Afghan youth recounted on Monday the terrifying scene in his home as a lone U.S. 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 U.S. 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 told The Associated Press. His father was wounded but survived.

After the gunman left, Mr. 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 U.S. base in southern Kandahar province.

Tensions high

An enraged Mr. 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 Koran burnings at a U.S. base got out.

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.

In Afghanistan's Parliament on Monday, 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.

Still the public response to the shootings so far has been calmer than the six days of violent protests and clashes that erupted after Korans were burned at Bagram Air Field. There were no signs of protests Monday.

The Taliban has vowed revenge for the killings. U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan have stepped up security following the shootings out of concern about retaliatory attacks. The U.S. Embassy has also warned American citizens in Afghanistan about the possibility of reprisals.

The suspect in the shootings, who is in U.S. 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 U.S. official.

The Afghan Defence Ministry said the gunman left the base in Panjwai district and walked about two km to Balandi village. Villagers described how they cowered in fear around 3 a.m. as gunshots rang out and the soldier roamed from house to house, firing on those inside. They said he entered three homes in all and set fire to some of the bodies after he killed them.

Eleven of the 12 civilians killed in Balandi were from the same family. The remaining victim was a neighbour.

From Balandi, the gunman walked roughly one mile to the village of Alkozai, which was only about 500 meters from the American military base. There the gunman killed four people in one house and then moved to Mr. Zahir's house, where he shot his father in the leg.

U.S. officials said initial reports indicated that the soldier returned to his base after the shootings and turned himself in.

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