Thursday, April 19, 2018

Afghan officials attacked at village

PANJWAI, Afghanistan — Militants riding motorcycles attacked a high-level Afghan government delegation during a memorial service Tuesday in the village where a U.S. soldier is said to have killed 16 people, mostly children and women, in a door-to-door rampage.

The Tuesday assault, on a mosque in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province, left at least one Afghan soldier dead and punctured the calm that had largely prevailed in Afghanistan since the massacre. There was no immediate claim of responsibility from the Taliban, whose roots are in the area. But the attack belied the Afghan government's efforts to present itself as in control of the situation in Kandahar, where anger over Sunday's killings is perhaps deepest.

A reporter for the New York Times at the memorial described 20 minutes of heavy gunfire that pinned down members of the delegation, including Qayum Karzai and Shah Wali Karzai, brothers of President Hamid Karzai. They appeared to have escaped unharmed and soon after the gunfire subsided sped back to Kandahar city, the provincial capital, on a highway closed to other traffic.

The delegation, which had been sent by Karzai, paid compensation to the wounded and the families of those killed in the rampage. Each death was compensated with about $2,000, and every person wounded was given about $1,000. The U.S. government also plans to pay compensation, although it is not clear how much or when.

Despite the deepening antipathy to U.S. forces in the country, Afghanistan had largely been calm since Sunday's killings, leaving unrealized Western fears of a repeat of the unrest that spread across the country last month after the burning of Korans by U.S. soldiers. The only demonstration since Sunday took place Tuesday morning in the city of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, where about 1,000 people burned an effigy of President Barack Obama and of a cross and blocked a highway for about an hour, chanting "Death to America" and "Death to the Jews."

They demanded an immediate public trial for the U.S. soldier accused of carrying out the killings and urged Karzai not to sign a strategic partnership deal with the United States. The soldier will be tried through the military justice system, U.S. officials say.

The Americans have stressed they consider the killings a crime that is distinct from the deaths of civilians during military operations — a view not shared by most Afghans, where thousands of civilians have died at the hands of the U.S.-led coalition and the Taliban in the past decade.

U.S. officials say there was only one gunman, a 38-year-old staff sergeant from the Army's conventional forces who had been assigned to a small Special Operations base near the village where the massacre took place.

Col. Gary Kolb, a spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition in Kabul, said a 48-hour probable cause assessment was completed and that the service member continues to be confined. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said he could face capital punishment.

The suspect has not been identified. U.S. officials say he is a married father of two who was trained as a sniper and recently suffered a head injury in Iraq.

A senior military official said investigators are looking into whether alcohol played a role.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday 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."

The president said the Pentagon would follow the facts "wherever they lead us." Obama said he met Monday with the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John R. Allen, and with the ambassador, Ryan Crocker.

Obama insisted that the furor over the rampage would not alter the U.S. policy or timetable as it winds down the war in Afghanistan. The administration, he said, was on track to withdraw 23,000 troops by the end of the summer. That would remove the troops added for the "surge" in 2010 and lower the total number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 68,000.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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