Karzai slams US over Afghan massacre, soldier identified

KABUL/TACOMA, Washington Sat Mar 17, 2012 10:32am IST

1 of 2. Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai speaks during a meeting with the family members of civilians killed by U.S. soldier in Kandahar last week at the presidential palace in Kabul March, 16, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Omar Sobhani

KABUL/TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai lashed out at the United States on Friday for failing to cooperate fully with an investigation into the massacre of 16 Afghan villagers, while the identity of the U.S. soldier implicated in the shootings was disclosed.

The U.S. Army identified the soldier as Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales and said he arrived on Friday at Fort Leavenworth army base in Kansas where he will be held in a solitary cell.

Bales, a 38-year-old married father of two children, has not yet been charged.

Karzai questioned whether only one U.S. soldier could have been responsible for a massacre that took so many lives.

A series of blunders by the United States, including the killings in Kandahar province on Sunday and the inadvertent burning of copies of the Koran at a NATO base last month, has further strained already tense relations between the countries.

"This has been going on for too long. You have heard me before. It is by all means the end of the rope here," Karzai told reporters at the heavily fortified presidential palace.

Flanked by senior officials, a tired and sometimes angry Karzai listened to village elders and the families of victims of the massacre at the start of an expected two days of talks to discuss the killings.

"The army chief has just reported that the Afghan investigation team did not receive the cooperation that they expected from the United States," Karzai said. "Therefore these are all questions that we'll be raising, and raising very loudly, and raising very clearly."

Some at the meeting shouted, some demanded answers, but all said they wanted any soldiers involved punished.

"I don't want any compensation. I don't want money, I don't want a trip to Mecca, I don't want a house. I want nothing. But what I absolutely want is the punishment of the Americans. This is my demand, my demand, my demand and my demand," said one villager, whose brother was killed in the nighttime slaughter.

Karzai appeared to back the belief of the villagers, and many other Afghans, including the country's parliament, that one gunman acting alone could not have killed so many people, and in different locations some distance apart.

"They believe it's not possible for one person to do that. In (one) family, in four rooms people were killed, women and children were killed, and they were all brought together in one room and then put on fire. That one man cannot do," Karzai said.

DEFENSE STRATEGY

Bales is expected to face justice under U.S. military rules, but it is not clear where any trial would take place.

Bales' attorney John Henry Browne told Reuters that post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, would likely be part of the defense of the four-tour veteran. The soldier's military unit is based south of Tacoma, Washington.

"It is commonly used in military defense," he said, calling it a mitigating factor. Browne has said the soldier was unhappy about returning to combat after being wounded twice in Iraq.

Browne also said the soldier had witnessed a serious injury to a comrade the day before the massacre. "One leg was blown off," Browne said, and the soldier was nearby.

Furious Afghans and lawmakers have demanded that the soldier be tried in Afghanistan, but despite those calls, Bales was flown out to Kuwait on Wednesday and then back to the United States.

"The Army confirms that Staff Sergeant Robert Bales was transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Bales is being held in pre-trial confinement," the Army said in a statement.

He will be held in "special housing in his own cell," the Army said.

Seeking to placate the Afghan leader, U.S. President Barack Obama called Karzai to reaffirm plans for Afghan forces to take a lead in combat operations next year and assume full responsibility for security across Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

A White House summary of their phone call on Friday showed that Washington was determined to stick to the current timetable for the security transition and U.S. troop withdrawal for now.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the two men "were very much on the same page" despite Karzai's demand on Thursday for the handover of security to Afghan police and soldiers by 2013, a year ahead of schedule.

It was Obama's second call with Karzai this week, rare for a U.S. president who has had a sometimes testy relationship with his Afghan counterpart and has often kept him at arm's length.

Carney said Obama called Karzai to congratulate him on the birth of a daughter and they took the opportunity to reaffirm a commitment to the current plans for U.S. withdrawal.

"The two leaders also affirmed that they share the goal of building capable Afghan security forces and strengthening Afghan sovereignty so that Afghans are increasingly in charge of their own security, with the lead for combat operations shifting to Afghan forces, with U.S. forces in support, in 2013," he said.

The White House said they discussed Karzai's "longstanding concerns regarding night raids and house searches" and agreed to talk further about his concerns about NATO troops in Afghan villages. Karzai called on Thursday for NATO troops to leave the villages and confine themselves to major bases, underscoring fury over the massacre and clouding U.S. exit plans.

TWIN INVESTIGATIONS

Twin investigations into the massacre are still under way by U.S. and Afghan officials, and any discovery of more than one soldier involved in the massacre would be a disaster for NATO, with Western leaders needing to win over Afghans ahead of a withdrawal by most foreign combat troops in 2014.

Civilian casualties caused by NATO forces hunting insurgents are a major source of friction between the Afghan government and its Western backers, and have damaged efforts to win the "hearts and minds" of locals in the decade-old war.

"Our families are finished and our houses are destroyed," said a furious Hajji Abdul Samad Aka, who lost 11 members of his family in the killings in two villages of Panjwayi district.

Anger over the massacre spilled into weekly Friday prayers at major mosques in central Kabul with one cleric calling the shooting "unforgivable" and questioning how a soldier with alleged mental problems could be in the U.S. military.

"Revenge for the blood of these victims will be taken either today, tomorrow, in 10 years or the next 100 years," said Mullah Ayaz Niazi at Wazir Akhbar Khan mosque in Kabul's diplomatic enclave, which is also home to NATO headquarters.

In another incident on Friday, a NATO helicopter crashed into a house on the outskirts of Kabul, killing 12 Turkish soldiers on board and four Afghan civilians on the ground, Turkey's military and a senior Afghan police official said.

(Additional reporting by Rob Taylor in Kabul, and Matt Spetalnick and Missy Ryan in Washington; editing by Will Dunham and Mohammad Zargham)

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