- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 13, 2012

BALANDI, Afghanistan (AP) — Taliban militants opened fire Tuesday on a delegation of senior Afghan officials — including two of President Hamid Karzai’s brothers — visiting villages in southern Afghanistan where a U.S. soldier is suspected of killing 16 civilians.

The attack came as students in the east staged the first significant protest in response to Sunday’s shootings, raising worries of a repeat of the wave of violent demonstrations that rocked the nation after last month’s burning of Korans by troops at a U.S. base.

The militants killed an Afghan soldier who was providing security for the delegation in Balandi village, said Gen. Abdul Razaq, the police chief for Kandahar province, where the visit took place. Another Afghan soldier and a military prosecutor were wounded, he said.

The delegation was in a mosque for a memorial service for those killed Sunday when the gunfire erupted.

One of the president’s brothers, Qayum Karzai, said the attack didn’t seem serious to him.

“We were giving them our condolences, then we heard two very, very light shots,” Mr. Karzai said. “Then we assumed that it was the national army that started to fire in the air.”

He said the members of the delegation, which also included Kandahar Gov. Tooryalai Wesa and Minister of Border and Tribal Affairs Asadullah Khalid, were safe and headed back to Kandahar city.

Before the attack on the delegation, the Taliban vowed to kill and behead those responsible for the civilian deaths in the two villages in Panjwai district, considered the birthplace of the militant group.

Nine of the 16 killed were children, and three were women, according to President Karzai.

The U.S. has in custody an Army staff sergeant who is suspected of carrying out Sunday’s pre-dawn killings, but officials have 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.

Their anger was evident Tuesday 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,” Mr. 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.

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