BALANDI, Afghanistan – As bullets flew, the Afghan woman scooped up her 3-year-old niece and ran for their lives. Moments later, the woman was dead and the girl lay bleeding from a gunshot wound.
It was the closing scene of a massacre that left 16 civilians, including nine children, dead in two villages in southern Kandahar province.
The U.S. is holding an Army staff sergeant that military officials say slipped off a U.S. base before dawn Sunday, walked to the villages, barged into their homes and opened fire. Some of the corpses were burned. Eleven were from one family. Five other people were wounded.
The military said Tuesday there was probable cause to continue holding the soldier, who has not been named, in custody. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has said he could face capital punishment.
Villagers – angry at foreign troops, frustrated with their government and tired of war – recounted the tragedy to a delegation sent to the scene by President Hamid Karzai. Two who lost relatives insisted that not one – but at least two – soldiers took part in the shootings.
President Barack Obama pledged a thorough investigation, saying the U.S. was taking the case “as seriously as if it was our own citizens, and our children, who were murdered.”
In Afghanistan’s first significant demonstration since the killings, protesters in the east burned an effigy of Obama as well as a cross, which they used as a symbol of people – like many Americans – who are Christians. They also called for the death of the soldier who has been accused.
On Tuesday, there was even more gunfire in Balandi, the village where 12 civilians were killed.
Taliban insurgents opened fire from behind some trees at members of the delegation, including two of Karzai’s brothers. One Afghan soldier died of a gunshot wound to the head, while Afghan security forces returning fire killed three militants. Delegation members escaped unharmed.
Sunday’s shooting rampage began in Balandi, a village nearly a mile south of the base.
Mohammad Wazir told the delegation that he was out of town when 11 of his relatives were slain at his house about 2:30 a.m. Someone called him in Spin Boldak, where he works as a farmer, and he hurried home to Panjwai district.
He said his sister told him that she heard gunfire and saw at least two soldiers firing inside their walled compound before she ran to hide in the kitchen of her uncle’s home nearby.
“Everybody was shouting,” Wazir said his sister told him. “My mother was in the yard closest to the Americans. They shot and killed her.”
“My brother was shouting, ‘Why are you shooting?’ and they killed him,” Wazir said. “Everybody was running in different directions. The children were running in one direction. The women were running in another direction, but they kept shooting.”
When his sister emerged from her kitchen hideout, 11 members of Wazir’s family were dead: his wife, mother, two sons, three daughters, his brother and sister-in-law, a nephew and a niece. Pieces of burned blankets were found near the bodies.
“My sister said that not only had they killed my family members, but they burned their bodies,” Wazir said.
Members of the delegation said another man was killed inside his home in the village. They did not provide details of his death.
After the killings in Balandi, south of the base, four other people were gunned down in the village of Alkozai, less than a mile north of the base.
Sayed Jan said he was in the nearby city of Kandahar where he does construction work when the shooting occurred shortly before 3 a.m. at his house in Alkozai. He told the delegation that his cousins next door saw two men enter the house and gun down four people. The cousins ran to safety.
“First they killed my sister-in-law, then a brother,” Jan told the delegation of Afghan security officials and lawmakers. “Then they killed another brother and then another sister-in-law.”
Jan’s 3-year-old daughter, who was in the arms of one of his sisters-in-law, survived. Jan, a widower, hasn’t been able to see his daughter, who was taken to an international military coalition hospital at Kandahar Air Field, 65 kilometers (40 miles) northeast of the villages.
“They were running away and she was shot and injured,” Jan said.
Marine Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, said Monday in Washington that an Afghan soldier on guard duty reported seeing a U.S. soldier walk off the base. That report prompted a head count, which revealed that the staff sergeant was missing. A search party was organized, but others on the base could not find the missing soldier before the attacks occurred, Allen said.
Panetta said the soldier returned to the base on his own, told others what he had done and turned himself in.
Members of the Afghan delegation investigating the killings said one Afghan guard working from midnight to 2 a.m. saw a U.S. soldier return to the base around 1:30 a.m. Another Afghan soldier who replaced the first and worked until 4 a.m. said he saw a U.S. soldier leaving the base at 2:30 a.m. It’s unknown whether the Afghan guards saw the same U.S. soldier.
If the gunman acted alone, information from the Afghan guards would suggest that he returned to base in between the shooting sprees.
“We’re still investigating and looking at evidence, but right now everything points to one shooter,” said Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Kabul.
Villagers also reported seeing helicopters circling Balandi the night of the shooting. They gave members of the delegation empty canisters that the choppers had dropped to illuminate the area. Helicopters ferried the injured to Kandahar Air Field.
Cummings said there were no combat or close air support operations in the two villages at the time of the shootings.
Col. Gary Kolb, a spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition in Kabul, said a 48-hour probable cause assessment was completed and that the service member continues to be confined.
U.S. officials have identified him as a married, 38-year-old father of two who was trained as a sniper and recently suffered a head injury in Iraq.
A senior military official said investigators are looking into the possibility that alcohol played a role.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is under way, said it’s unclear whether the suspect had been drinking before disappearing from his base or whether alcohol was simply found in his living space there. Military rules prohibit the use or possession of alcohol in a war zone.
At the White House, a stern Obama said “we will make sure that anybody who is involved is held fully accountable with the full force of the law.”
The anger among Balandi residents was on display Tuesday.
“Today, the Kandahar governor was trying to explain to the villagers that he was only one soldier, that he was not a sane person and that he was sick,” said Abdul Rahim Ayubi, a Kandahar lawmaker who was in Balandi with the delegation.
“But the people were just shouting and they were very angry. They didn’t listen to the governor. They accused him of defending the Americans instead of defending the Kandahari people,” Ayubi said.
The Taliban attack came as members of the government delegation left a village mosque where a memorial service was being held for the victims.
Shots were fired just as Qayum and Shah Wali Karzai, two of the president’s brothers, and other top Afghan officials were leaving the mosque. They were unharmed.
Before they left, the delegation members started to pay out compensation to relatives of victims – $2,000 for each death and $1,000 for each person wounded.
The gunbattle came as images of the aftermath of the killings spread across the country, and the public reaction – which at first seemed surprisingly muted – began to build. Photographs of dead toddlers wrapped in bloody blankets in Panjwai started to make the rounds in Afghanistan on Monday. The images were broadcast on Afghan TV stations, and people posted them on social network sites and blogs.
Students in Jalalabad protested the killings, raising concerns about a repeat of the wave of violent demonstrations that rocked the nation after last month’s burning of Qurans by troops at a U.S. base. Students shouted “Death to America!” and, “Death to the soldier who killed our civilians!”
“The reason we are protesting is because of the killing of innocent children and other civilians by this tyrant U.S. soldier,” said Sardar Wali, a university student. “We want the United Nations and the Afghan government to publicly try this guy.”