U.S. Soldier in Custody After Killing 16 Afghan Civilians

A soldier in Afghanistan wandered off his base and entered three civilian homes, then proceeded to methodically shoot each of the residents in the head. 16 are dead, several of them young children. 

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In a horrifying turn of events in Afghanistan today, an American soldier walked off his base in Kandahar Province today and began firing indiscriminately on three civilian homes. The number of dead is now up to 16 but could still grow, The New York Times reports, as five more were injured in the shooting; among them are children. The service member is currently detained, and there appears to have been no motive.

From The Washington Post:

“He walked right off the base, started shooting civilians and returned to the base and turned himself in,” Maj. Jason Waggnor, a U.S. military spokesman said.

Villagers overcome by shock collected all the bodies and transported them to the military base in search of answers. The Times reports "burn marks could be seen on some of the bodies."  Fazal Mohammad Esaqzai, the deputy chief of the provincial council, expressed doubt the shooter worked alone, saying the killer or killers “entered the room where the women and children were sleeping and they were all shot in the head," the Post reports. Esaqzi saw 11 of the bodies, which "including three women; four children whose ages ranged between six and nine; and three men were executed inside the home of a village elder."

President Obama has been briefed on the shooting, USA Today reports, but has not yet spoken out about the tragedy. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, "we are deeply concerned by the initial reports of this incident, and are monitoring the situation closely."

The shooting comes on the heels of last month's NATO Koran-burning incident at Bagram Air Base, in which the burning of Afghan prisoners' copies of the Koran by U.S. soldiers resulted in a surge of deadly, anti-American violence throughout the country. In all, 29 Afghan and six U.S. soldiers were killed. Looking to stem further rioting and retaliation, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul swiftly issued a statement of condolence:

The United States extends its deepest condolences to the families of the victims of today’s tragic shooting incident in Kandahar province.  We are saddened by this violent act against our Afghan friends.  Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and their entire community.   U.S. Forces are providing the highest level of care for those injured.  We are still attempting to ascertain the facts.  The incident is under investigation and a United States service member has been detained. 

We are committed to an enduring partnership with Afghanistan to obtain greater peace and security in the region, which is our common interest.  We deplore any attack by a member of the U.S. Armed Forces against innocent civilians, and denounce all violence against civilians.  We assure the people of Afghanistan that the individual or individuals responsible for this act will be identified and brought to justice.

Lt. Gen. Adrian J. Bradshaw, the deputy commander of the international troop coalition in Afghanistan, released his own statement:

“In my role as in-theatre Commander of ISAF in General Allen’s temporary absence on duty, I wish to convey my profound regrets and dismay at the actions apparently taken by one coalition member in Kandahar province. One of our soldiers is reported to have killed and injured a number of civilians in villages adjacent to his base. I cannot explain the motivation behind such callous acts, but they were in no way part of authorized ISAF military activity. An investigation is already underway and every effort will be made to establish the facts and punish anyone responsible as appropriate. In the meantime, our thoughts and prayers are with those caught in this tragedy. I wish once again, on behalf of General Allen and all members of ISAF, to convey our deep regrets and sorrow at this appalling incident.

President Hamid Karzai issued a condemnation of what he called "intentional murders," Reuters reports. He demanded an explanation from the United States.

We'll have updates on this story as it develops.

Photo: An Afghan woman gestures to the body of a child victim of the shooter, transported by car to a U.S. army base in search of answers. [AP]

UPDATE: President Obama has released a statement: "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."

There are eyewitness accounts that conflict with the military's "one shooter" version of events, Reuters reports, with neighbors saying they saw "several" shooters. One witness said the burns on the bodies came from chemicals poured over the corpses and then set ablaze, and another said the intruders "were all drunk and shooting all over the place." Nine of the dead are children, the Times reports, adding that the crime was committed by a lone U.S. Army sergeant.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.