- Associated Press - Sunday, March 11, 2012

BALANDI, AFGHANISTAN A U.S soldier opened fire on villagers near his base in southern Afghanistan on Sunday and killed 16 civilians, according to President Hamid Karzai, who called it an “assassination” and furiously demanded an explanation from Washington.

Nine children and three women were among the dead.

The killing spree deepened a crisis between U.S. forces and their Afghan hosts over Americans burning Muslim holy books on a base in Afghanistan.

The Koran burnings sparked weeks of violent protests and attacks that left some 30 people dead. Six U.S. service members have been killed by their Afghan colleagues since the burnings came to light, but the violence had just started to calm down.

“This is an assassination, an intentional killing of innocent civilians and cannot be forgiven,” Mr. Karzai said, adding that he repeatedly has demanded the U.S. stop killing Afghan civilians.

The violence over the Koran burnings spurred calls in the U.S. for a faster exit strategy from the 10-year-old Afghan war.

President Obama even said recently that “now is the time for us to transition.” But he also said he had no plan to change the current timetable that has Afghans taking control of security countrywide by the end of 2014.

The tensions between the two countries had appeared to be easing as recently as Friday, when the U.S. and Afghan governments signed a memorandum of understanding about the transfer of Afghan detainees to Afghan control - a key step toward an eventual strategic partnership to govern U.S. forces in the country.

But Sunday’s shooting could push that agreement further away.

“This is a fatal hammer blow on the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. Whatever sliver of trust and credibility we might have had following the burnings of the Koran is now gone,” said David Cortright, director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and an advocate for a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“This may have been the act of a lone, deranged soldier. But the people of Afghanistan will see it for what it was, a wanton massacre of innocent civilians.”

Five people were wounded in the pre-dawn attack in Kandahar province, including a 15-year-old boy named Rafiullah who was shot in the leg and spoke to the president over the telephone. He described how the U.S. soldier entered his house in the middle of the night, woke up his family and began shooting them, according to Mr. Karzai’s statement.

NATO officials apologized for the shootings but did not confirm that anyone was killed, referring instead to reports of deaths.

“I wish to convey my profound regrets and dismay at the actions apparently taken by one coalition member in Kandahar province,” said a statement from British army Lt. Gen. Adrian Bradshaw, the deputy commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan.

“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,” he said, using the abbreviation for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.