A new and potentially damaging row broke out in Afghanistan yesterday after a member of the team investigating last week's massacre of 16 people, allegedly by US soldier Robert Bales, said two of the female victims had been sexually assaulted.
Shakiba Hashimi, a member of the delegation sent to Kandahar province to examine the shootings, told reporters the women were "dishonoured", suggesting they may have been raped.
There was ambiguity, however, after Sayeed Mohammad Akhund, another delegation member, said that while the women's clothes had been removed, they were not sexually assaulted. Elders from Panjwai district, where the murders took place, also said the women were not sexually abused and that Kabul MPs claiming this were doing so for their own political purposes.
Lawyers for Bales, a staff sergeant who is being held at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, said the 38-year-old would probably be charged soon and was expected to face a military trial. Leon Panetta, the US Defence Secretary, suggested that Bales, of the US 3rd Infantry Regiment, could face the death penalty if convicted. Five Afghan MPs and other dignitaries were sent to Panjwai by President Hamid Karzai after Bales apparently left his camp and killed 16 civilians. While US investigators say he acted alone, the Afghan delegation found that up to 20 soldiers in two groups took part in the killings and had helicopter support.
Mr Akhund told The Independent that numerous different footprints, and evidence of "various types of American weapons" being used, indicated more than one perpetrator. The British ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir William Patey, tweeted yesterday: "Reports of more than one gunman involved in Kandahar killings simply not true."
Mr Akhund also said that parliament had demanded a public trial for Bales and that it would "push Karzai not to sign a strategic pact with the Americans". Negotiations on the agreement have been under way for more than a year. It will set out the terms of the relationship between Afghanistan and the US after international combat troops withdraw at the end of 2013.
Meanwhile, divergent details about the character of Bales emerged in the US media over the weekend. Some reports painted him as devoted family man and kind-hearted neighbour who won commendations for his military conduct in Iraq, while others pointed to his troubled finances and brushes with the law.
Bales joined the army after the 11 September attacks on US targets in 2001. He served for more than three years in Iraq on three separate tours of duty.