Taliban fire on Afghan officials at attack site 

 

Balandi, Afghanistan

Taliban insurgents opened fire on senior officials, including two brothers of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, as they were leaving a memorial service at a village mosque for 16 villagers killed by a US soldier.

Qayum and Shah Walid Karzai and other top Afghan officials in their delegation escaped in their cars unharmed from the ambush in the country's south. 

But one Afghan soldier was hit in the head almost immediately and died, while two other Afghan army personnel were wounded in the 20-minute firefight that ensued in one of the two villages in Kandahar province where the killings had occurred two days before. 

The gunbattle came as images of the aftermath of Sunday's killings spread across the country, and the public reaction — which at first seemed surprisingly muted — began to build. 

In the east, students staged the first significant protest in response to the killings, raising concerns about a repeat of the wave of violent demonstrations that rocked the nation after last month's burning of Qurans by troops at a US base. 

The incident has also added to pressure in the US to get out of Afghanistan more quickly. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking to reporters on the plane traveling to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, said the military withdrawal was still on schedule to finish by 2014. 

Panetta said he was awaiting plans from General John Allen, the top US commander in Afghanistan, to bring home the remaining 23,000 US troops sent to Afghanistan during the 2009 surge. Those forces are due to leave by the end of September, dropping the US presence in the country down to 68,000 troops. 

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi claimed responsibility for the attack on the delegation in Balandi village in Panjwai district, an area considered the birthplace of the militant group. Previously, the movement had vowed to behead those responsible for the shootings. 

The militants rode to the village on motorcycles, police said. They ambushed the delegation from the cover of a distant row of trees. Afghan security forces fired back, killing three militants, said Gen. Abdul Razaq, the Kandahar police chief. The two Afghan army personnel who were wounded included a soldier and a military prosecutor, he said. 

Qayum Karzai sought to play down the ambush. He said the delegation, which also included Kandahar Gov. Tooryalai Wesa and Minister of Border and Tribal Affairs Asadullah Khalid, had been giving their condolences to the victims' families. They then heard "two very, very light shots." 

"Then we assumed it was the national army that started to fire in the air," said Karzai. 

Nine of the 16 civilians killed on Sunday in Balandi and Alkozai villages were children and three were women, according to the Afghan president. Some of their bodies were burnt after they were killed. 

The U.S. has an Army staff sergeant in custody who is suspected of carrying out Sunday's pre-dawn killings but has not released his name. 

Villagers have described him stalking from house to house in the middle of the night, opening fire on sleeping families and then burning some of the dead bodies. 

Witnesses interviewed by The Associated Press after the attack described only one shooter, and U.S. officials have been adamant that there was only one soldier involved. 

But on Tuesday, villagers who testified to the delegation insisted there were two soldiers, citing relatives who survived the attacks. 

Mohammad Wazir, who was away from his home in Balandi village that night, said his sister saw two U.S. soldiers enter the house and start shooting. Everyone started running different directions, and she ran to the kitchen to hide. When the gunfire ended and she re-emerged, 11 of her relatives were dead. 

In Alkozai to the south, a man named Sayed Jan said his cousins told him that they saw two soldiers come into his house and start firing. Jan's relatives barricaded their door and snuck out another exit. Jan was away in Kandahar city that night. 

The villages are about 65 kilometers (40 miles) southwest of Kandahar city. 

The villagers' anger was evident in discussions with the visiting officials before the attack cut the visit short. 

"Today, the Kandahar governor was trying to explain to the villagers that he was only one soldier, that he was not a sane person and that he was sick," said Abdul Rahim Ayubi, a Kandahar lawmaker who was part of the delegation. 

"But the people were just shouting and they were very angry. They didn't listen to the governor. They accused him of defending the Americans instead of defending the Kandahari people," Ayubi said. 

The delegation did manage before the shooting started to pay out compensation to family members of the victims — $2,000 for each death and $1,000 for each person wounded. 

In the eastern city of Jalalabad, meanwhile, hundreds of students staged the first significant protest in response to the tragedy, shouting angry slogans against the U.S. and the American attacker. 

The killings have caused outrage in Afghanistan but have not sparked the kind of violent protests seen last month after American soldiers burned Muslim holy books and other Islamic texts. 

But the students protesting at a Jalalabad university, 80 miles (125 kilometers) east of the capital Kabul, were incensed. 

"Death to America!" and, "Death to the soldier who killed our civilians!" shouted the crowd. 

Some carried a banner that called for a public trial of the soldier, who U.S. officials have identified as a married, 38-year-old father of two who was trained as a sniper and recently suffered a head injury in Iraq. 

Other protesters burned an effigy of President Barack Obama and set fire to a cross to show their disgust for the Christianity they associated with the United States. 

"The reason we are protesting is because of the killing of innocent children and other civilians by this tyrant U.S. soldier," said Sardar Wali, a university student. "We want the United Nations and the Afghan government to publicly try this guy." 

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement that the soldier should be tried as a war criminal and executed by the victims' relatives. 

Obama has expressed his shock and sadness and extended his condolences to the families of the victims. But he has also said the horrific episode would not speed up plans to pull out foreign forces, despite increasing opposition at home to the war in Afghanistan. 

Photographs of dead toddlers wrapped in bloody blankets in Panjwai started to make the rounds in Afghanistan on Monday. The images were broadcast on Afghan TV stations, and people posted them on social network sites and blogs. 

If the protests against the recent killings spread and become violent it could further complicate the issue, said Malcolm Chalmers, a professor of security policy at Kings College in London.

"My instinct is that it (the killings) will not have much influence on the pace of withdrawal," said Chalmers. "But if you see riots in Kandahar and Kabul and other cities, that could change."

In the aftermath of the Quran burnings last month, over 30 people were killed in the protests and Afghan forces turned their guns on their supposed allies, killing six U.S. service members.

The Qurans and other Islamic books were taken from a detention facility and dumped in a burn pit because they were believed to contain extremist messages or inscriptions. A military official said at the time that it appeared detainees were exchanging messages by making notations in the texts. 

U.S.-Afghan strains appeared to be easing as recently as Friday, when the two governments signed an agreement to gradually the transfer of Afghan detainees to Afghan control — a key step toward a pact to govern U.S. forces in the country after most combat troops leave in 2014. 

But after the shooting, Afghan lawmakers called for a halt to negotiations on a bilateral pact with the U.S. until the soldier behind the shooting faces trial in Afghanistan. 

The soldier, who has been in the military for 11 years and served three tours in Iraq, was being held in pretrial confinement in Kandahar by the U.S. military while Army officials review his complete deployment and medical history, Pentagon officials said. 

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta yesterday said that the soldier may face capital charges. 

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, told CNN yesterday that the soldier did not leave his base undetected. An Afghan soldier saw him go and reported this to the Americans, who did a head count and realized that the suspect was missing. The Americans formed a search party, but Allen did not describe what happened after that. 

Other U.S. officials have said initial reports indicate the soldier turned himself in after the shootings. 

The soldier was deployed to Afghanistan on Dec. 3 with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord located south of Seattle, according to a congressional source, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. 

He was sent on Feb. 1 to Belambai, the base located a half-mile from one of the villages that was attacked, the source said. 

A US military spokesman in Kabul said he was responsible for providing base security.

AP

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: HR Advisor

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This organization has been a trusted partner t...

Recruitment Genius: Buyer / Planner

£20000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity has ar...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Manager

£40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity working ...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Journals Manager

£33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The prime focus of the role is to assist...

Day In a Page

Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks