Soldier accused of massacre 'pushed to limit by Afghan war'

Robert Bales had seen his friend’s legs blown off shortly before killing 16 civilians in rampage

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The Independent Online

The staff sergeant accused in the slaughter last weekend of 16 Afghan civilians in villages close to Kandahar was on a military flight to a maximum security prison in Kansas last night, as his US lawyer portrayed him as a man pushed to the edge by the horrors of war.

He was named last night as Robert Bales and one US official suggested anonymously that alcohol and marital difficulties might have been involved. "When it all comes out, it will be a combination of stress, alcohol and domestic issues – he just snapped," he said.

Representing Staff Sgt Bales, who has two young children, is John Henry Browne, a Seattle-based lawyer well known for having defended the serial killer Ted Bundy as well the "barefoot bandit", a young man convicted last year of carrying out a string of crimes across America, sometimes shoeless. Mr Browne, who intends to travel to Kansas next week to meet his client, said that the day before the killing spree the staff sergeant had seen a close friend serving with him have his legs blown off.

Mr Browne had brief contact with him by telephone after Staff Sgt Bales was taken from Afghanistan and placed in a holding centre in Kuwait. The lawyer said it was "nonsense" to suggest that family strains were a factor in the case. "The government is going to want to blame this on an individual rather than blame it on the war," he said.

The friend's "leg was blown off, and my client was standing next to him," Mr Browne said in his Seattle office. Staff Sgt Bales, 38, who is also married, had previously served three tours in Iraq, where he had twice been injured, on one occasion losing part of a foot. Last year, he had been training as a military recruiter at his base south of Seattle and had not been expecting further deployments.

When he learned he was going to Afghanistan he was very reluctant to go, according to Mr Browne. "He wasn't thrilled about going on another deployment," said Mr Browne, who was approached to take the case by the soldier's family. "He was told he wasn't going back, and then he was told he was going."

The massacre put new strains on Nato's relationship with Afghanistan and President Hamid Karzai, who met relatives of victims at his palace in Kabul yesterday. One man, who lost nine members of his family in the rampage, confronted the President, demanding: "Why did this happen? Do you have answers, Mr President?" "No, I do not" was the response. Those killed included women and children, all shot at close range in the dead of night. Mr Karzai said he was "at the end of [his] rope" after the US refused to share information on its investigation so far. He has demanded that Nato forces withdraw from rural areas.

Meanwhile, in Seattle, Mr Browne said that his client, who is not co-operating with US military officials, was known as a mild-mannered man by friends and family. He enlisted to serve within two weeks of the 9/11 attacks and moved from the Midwest to the sprawling Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Tacoma.

"He's never said anything antagonistic about Muslims," Mr Browne said. "He's in general very mild-mannered."