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1:43am UK, Monday March 12, 2012
President Barack Obama has called an incident in which an American soldier killed 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, “tragic and shocking”.
In a written statement, Mr Obama said: “I offer my condolences to the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives, and to the people of Afghanistan, who have endured too much violence and suffering.
“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.”
The president offered his full backing to a US investigation “to get the facts as quickly as possible and to hold accountable anyone responsible”.
Barack Obama pictured in his car on the phone to Hamid Karzai
The US leader has spoken to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who earlier demanded an explanation for what he termed an “assassination” that “cannot be forgiven.”
US defence secretary Leon Panetta also assured Mr Karzai in a phone call that a “full investigation” was under way.
“A suspect is in custody, and I gave President Karzai my assurances that we will bring those responsible to justice,” Mr Panetta said.
The defence secretary added that he is “shocked and saddened that a US service member… clearly acting outside his chain of command” has been linked to the incident.
Mr Panetta said he told Mr Karzai “that the American people share the outrage” felt by the Afghan leader and his people.
The gunman, believed to be a lone rogue soldier from Fort Lewis in Washington, went from house to house in two villages in southern Kandahar during the night.
Shooting began at around 3am, according to officials. Among the victims were at least three women, a child aged just two and elderly men.
Neighbours said they awoke to crackling gunfire and that the soldier had appeared drunk.
Relatives of the victims claimed chemicals were poured over the dead bodies to burn them. Pictures of the scene appeared to show the remains of burning in at least one of the houses.
Other pictures showed blood-splattered walls where the children died.
The gunman, reported to be an Army staff sergeant with possible mental health problems, returned to his base after the spree and is said to have turned himself in.
US officials have confirmed he is in custody.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation, said the suspect is a “conventional soldier” from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.
The base, home to about 100,000 military and civilian personnel, was described as the country’s “most troubled base” by the military newspaper Stars and Stripes.
In 2010, four Lewis-McChord soldiers were convicted in the deliberate killings of three Afghan civilians and in a separate incident a former soldier shot and injured a Utah police officer.
On January 1 this year, a 24-year-old Lewis-McChord soldier who served in the Iraq War shot and killed a Mount Rainier National Park ranger.
Afghan men investigate one of the sites of the shooting, where there seems to be evidence of burning
Pentagon sources said the gunman was not a member of the special forces but is likely to have been involved in operations supporting special forces.
The Panjwayi district is about 22 miles west of the provincial capital Kandahar city and is considered the spiritual home of the Taliban and a hive of insurgent activity.
International forces have fought for control of the area for years as they have tried to subdue the Taliban in their rural strongholds.
The two villages where the rampage happened, Balandi and Alkozai, are around 500m from the US base.
The US commander of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf)vowed to hold “fully accountable” anyone found responsible for the “deeply appalling” killings.
“I am absolutely dedicated to making sure that anyone who is found to have committed wrong-doing is held fully accountable,” General John Allen said.
Afghanistan National Army soldiers stand guard as a crowd gathers at a US base in Kandahar after the killings
The incident adds new tensions to a relationship already severely strained over US forces burning Muslim holy books on a base in Afghanistan.
Although US officials apologised and said the burning was an accident, the incident sparked violent protests and attacks.
Six American soldiers have been killed in attacks by their Afghan colleagues since the Koran burnings came to light. Britain also pulled out civilian advisers from buildings in Kabul as protests spread.
The controversy followed an outrage over a video showing US marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters.