A US soldier has shot dead 16 Afghan civilians, nine of them children, in a night-time shooting spree in a village outside his base in southern Afghanistan, a rampage the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, said was "impossible to forgive".
The unprecedented attack on families asleep in their homes came as anti-foreign sentiment was already running high after Afghans discovered US troops had burned copies of the Qur'an at a military base.
That discovery prompted days of deadly violence. The killings in the early hours of Sunday morning are likely to fuel more anger across Afghanistan and raise questions in Kabul and the US about the future of an increasingly unpopular war.
About 1,000 people gathered to protest outside the Zangabad military base, in southern Kandahar province, as the bodies were prepared for burial and news of the killings spread throughout the area, a ribbon of mud adobe compounds interspersed with pomegranate orchards vineyards and fields of opium and marijuana.
Among the dead was a young girl in a green and red dress who had been shot in the forehead. The bodies of other victims appeared partially burned. A villager claimed they had been wrapped in blankets and set on fire by the killer.
It is not the first time that US soldiers have intentionally killed Afghan civilians but the toll is unprecedented for a single soldier. The soldier, who was reported to be a staff sergeant and father of three who has done three tours of duty in Iraq, was arrested after the assault. He appears to have made no attempt to cover up the shootings.
The commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, General John Allen, promised a thorough investigation. "I am absolutely dedicated to making sure that anyone who is found to have committed wrongdoing is held fully accountable," he said, but his response is unlikely to do much to dampen the fury of Afghan officials or people.
Ustad Abdul Halim, who lives in the same village in Panjwai district, said: "It is not the first time foreigners have killed Afghans. Even if the Americans kill Karzai, they won't be killed." The district, a former Taliban stronghold, has seen years of heavy fighting between insurgents and coalition forces and is still volatile.
Reports that the soldier might have suffered a breakdown before embarking on his killing spree were rejected. "If the US say this man has mental problems it raises questions for them, as they don't register anyone in their army if they have mental problems," said a Kandahar government spokesman, Javed Faisal.
The US embassy warned of "a risk of anti-American feelings and protests in coming days, especially in eastern and southern provinces".
Karzai, listed the dead – nine children, three women and four men – and described the killings as intentional murders that could not be forgiven. He has long criticised the western military for failing to do enough to prevent civilian casualties.
One family bore the brunt of the losses. When the gunman broke into their compound at around 3am, he killed all 11 people inside, villagers and officials said. The father of the family, Wazir, and one child survived because they were away from home.
Read more: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/mar/11/us-soldier-killi ng-afghanistan-children?newsfeed=true
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