- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 14, 2012

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The U.S. soldier who allegedly shot 16 Afghan villagers was caught on surveillance video that showed him walking up to his base, laying down his weapon and raising his arms in surrender, according to an Afghan official who viewed the footage.

The official said late Tuesday that U.S. authorities showed Afghan authorities the surveillance video to prove that only one perpetrator was involved in the Sunday shootings, which have further strained already shaky relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan.

Any major discrepancy between the official Afghan and U.S. accounts of the killing is likely to deepen the distrust.

One member of an Afghan government delegation investigating the killings said Wednesday that the group has concluded the shooting spree was carried out by more than one soldier. Parliament member Sayeed Ishaq Gilani said the delegation had heard from villagers who said they saw more than 15 troops at the scene.

But it’s unclear whether the soldiers the villagers saw were part of a search party that left the base to look for the U.S. soldier who was missing. The delegation is slated formally to release the results of its investigation later today.

On Tuesday, the delegation visited the two villages in Kandahar province where the shootings took place. Two villagers who lost relatives insisted that at least two soldiers took part in the shootings.

U.S. military officials continue to believe that only one soldier was involved.

“We are still receiving, reviewing and investigating all leads in connection with this terrible incident, but at this time everything still points to one shooter,” said Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition.

The surveillance video, taken from an overhead blimp that films the area around the base, shows a soldier in a U.S. uniform approaching the south gate of the base with a traditional Afghan shawl hiding the weapon in his hand, the Afghan official said.

He then removes the shawl as he lays his weapon on the ground and raises his arms in surrender.

The official was not shown any footage of the soldier leaving the base. The official spoke anonymously to discuss a private briefing.

The Taliban has vowed revenge for the shootings.

A bomb hidden in a motorcycle exploded Wednesday about 600 yards from where the Afghan government delegation investigating the shootings was meeting in the southern city of Kandahar, said a spokesman for the provincial governor, Zalmai Ayubi.

The attack killed one Afghan intelligence official and wounded two others. A civilian was also wounded. The bombing occurred about 300 yards from the Afghan intelligence headquarters in Kandahar, Mr. Ayubi said.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The Taliban opened fire on the delegation Tuesday while they were visiting the villages where the shootings happened. One Afghan army soldier was killed, and two other army personnel were wounded.

Afghan lawmakers have demanded that the alleged shooter, identified by U.S. officials as a staff sergeant, face a public trial inside Afghanistan. They have called on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to suspend any negotiations with the U.S. on a long-term military pact until this happens.

“No final decision has been made yet” on the location of the trial, said Col. Gary Kolb, a U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan.

Col. Kolb said that the U.S. has held courts-martial in Afghanistan before and could try the alleged shooter in the country. “They’ll take a look at all the circumstances and determine if they do it here or if it goes back to the States.”

The U.S. is holding the soldier, who military officials say slipped off a U.S. base before dawn Sunday, walked to the villages, barged into homes and opened fire. Some of the corpses were burned. Eleven were from one family. Five other people were wounded.

The military said Tuesday there was probable cause to continue holding the soldier, who has not been named, in custody. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta has said he could face capital punishment.

Mr. Panetta arrived in Afghanistan on Wednesday on a visit that was planned months before the weekend slaughter of Afghan villagers. But the trip propels Mr. Panetta into the center of escalating anti-American anger and sets the stage for some difficult discussions with Afghan leaders.

Mr. Panetta and other U.S. officials say the shooting spree should not derail the U.S. and NATO strategy of a gradual withdrawal of troops by the end of 2014. But it has further soured relations with war-weary Afghans, jeopardizing the U.S. strategy of working closely with Afghan forces so they can take over their country’s security.

Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak called the massacre “deplorable” Wednesday but said the country must remember the bigger issues at stake, likely a reference to the fear that the Taliban could capitalize on a precipitous foreign withdrawal.

“I mean the stakes are much higher than this incident, which we have all have condemned, and I think we are assured that the U.S. authority will take appropriate action,” said Mr. Wardak in a press conference with German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere in Kabul.

President Obama has pledged a thorough investigation, saying the U.S. was taking the case “as seriously as if it was our own citizens, and our children, who were murdered.”

Eight other civilians were killed Wednesday in southern Helmand province’s Marjah district when a roadside bomb struck their vehicle, the provincial governor’s office said.

Protesters in the east called for the death of the accused U.S. soldier Tuesday and burned an effigy of Mr. Obama as well as a cross, which they used as a symbol of people who — like many Americans — are Christians.

It was the first significant protest since the killings, which many had worried would spark another wave of deadly riots like those that followed the burning of Korans at a U.S. base last month. Nearly a week of violent demonstrations and attacks left more than 30 dead, including six U.S. soldiers killed apparent reprisal attacks.

Military commanders have yet to release their final investigation on the Koran burnings, which U.S. officials say was a mistake. Five U.S. service members could face disciplinary action in connection with the incident.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday expressed deep sadness at the “shocking incident” and said the United Nations expects that an investigation will rapidly establish the facts, that those responsible will be held accountable and that the public will be kept informed.

“When it comes to the protection of civilian populations, I have been very vocal here and all around the world, not only in Afghanistan,” Mr. Ban told a group of reporters. “We will continue to urge all authorities and military personnel who are engaging in these operations to pay extreme and utmost care to protect the civilian population.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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