- The Washington Times - Monday, March 12, 2012

Afghans on Monday demanded a swift trial and punishment for the U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 civilians, including women and children, while the Taliban vowed to avenge the killings.

Meanwhile, the Defense Department said the U.S. will stay the course in Afghanistan, despite Sunday’s slayings of civilians and recent deadly unrest after the burning of copies of the Koran at a military base.

“I want to emphasize very strongly, despite what some people might be saying out there, we are absolutely not changing our fundamental strategy in Afghanistan,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said Monday.

Army authorities in Afghanistan have detained a 38-year-old staff sergeant who had turned himself in at his base in Kandahar province. He is accused of going to three different villages more than a mile from his base, breaking into three houses, shooting 16 civilians and then burning the bodies of 11 of them.

The Associated Press reported that the sergeant is with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, and was assigned to the village stability program in Belambai, a half-mile from one of the villages where the attack took place.

“This is an isolated incident, and we will pursue accountability for the alleged actions of this service member,” Mr. Little said, adding that an Army investigation of the incident has begun.

Nonetheless, the violence has occurred as public outrage over the accidental burning of Korans at a U.S. military base was beginning to subside. Six Army soldiers were killed in protests and attacks over the burning in recent weeks.

The Koran-burning followed the posting in January of an Internet video of four Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters had caused an uproar in Afghanistan.

“These incidents are feeding the insurgency and will have a direct impact on the strategic partnership, withdrawal of U.S. troops and the NATO conference” in Chicago, said an Afghan official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity citing the sensitive nature of the issue.

International troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

U.S. and Afghan officials hope to reach an agreement on their strategic relationship in time for the NATO summit in May.

On Monday, the Taliban vowed to “take revenge from the invaders and the savage murderers for every single martyr with the help of Allah and they shall receive punishment for their barbaric actions,” the militant group said on its website.

The militants, who themselves have killed thousands of civilians, accused “sick minded American savages” of “committing a blood-soaked and inhumane crime.”

The Taliban statement appeared to anticipate an explanation from the U.S. that the soldier involved in the incident is mentally unstable.

“If the perpetrators of this massacre were in fact mentally ill, then this testifies to yet another moral transgression by the American military because they are arming lunatics in Afghanistan who turn their weapons against the defenseless Afghans without giving a second thought,” the Taliban stated.

The Taliban control large swathes of Kandahar province.

The Kandahar killings roiled a session of the Afghan National Assembly on Monday.

Members of the lower house introduced a resolution declaring that Afghans had “run out of patience with the arbitrary actions of foreign forces.” They demanded that the U.S. government punish the perpetrators of the attack and “try them in a public trial before the people of Afghanistan.”

Lawmakers representing Kandahar walked out of the session to protest the shootings.

“If [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai cannot stop such incidents, he should resign,” Muhammad Naeem Lalai Hamidzai, who represents Kandahar in the lower house of parliament, said in a phone interview from Kabul.

Mr. Karzai on Sunday said the incident was an “assassination, an intentional killing of innocent civilians and cannot be forgiven.”

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