Updated: Mar. 12, 2012 at 6:00 a.m. EST
Already battered by a wave of hostility over accidental Koran burnings, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan may face new perils over the deaths of 16 civilians in a shooting incident in Kandahar on Sunday. Afghan officials including Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi claim that a lone American soldier walked off his forward operating base in the early hours of the morning and randomly fired on civilians, leaving 16 dead, some of them women and children. An Afghan source in Panjwayi district told TIME that locals allege that some of the bodies were partially burned. Photographs purportedly taken at the scene show children and young men killed execution style, as well as blood splattered on the walls and floor inside an earthen house. A U.S. soldier is currently being held in military custody in connection with the incident, NATO spokesman Lt. Colonel Jimmie Cummings confirmed to TIME.
Reports from NATO allege that a soldier left his base early Sunday morning and entered the adjacent village, where he killed and wounded civilians. The Kandahar Media and Information Center reported that he entered three houses and executed the Afghan civilians there. TIME's sources in Kandahar said the attack happened in Alokozai village, in the Zangawat area of Panjwayi district. While the situation remained relatively calm in Kandahar today with only a small protest in the district the incident threatens to reignite violence that has only recently cooled after U.S. soldiers at Bagram Air Base near Kabul accidentally burned Korans and other religious publications in late February. The resulting protests that spread throughout the country although, not in Kandahar and Helmand provinces left around 30 Afghans dead and scores injured. On Monday, the Taliban said its fighters would "take revenge from the invaders and the savage murderers for every single martyr." Describing U.S. forces as "sick minded American savages," the Taliban said in a statement on its website that it would mete out punishment for the "barbaric actions." U.S. troops in Afghanistan have been placed on alert as officials warned of reprisals.
"Either way, we will see more tomorrow because the news will not have spread yet," a Kandahari source speaking on condition of anonymity told TIME. "Maybe there will be nothing, maybe there will be some protests. But, honestly, this incident is no different from what has happened in the past there have been similar incidents; worse things have happened to civilians here. There will be a reaction. People will be upset for some days to come." At the same time, he said he didn't believe the incident would "destroy relations" between, the Afghan government, U.S. forces, Western aid organizations and local villagers.
Senior Afghan officials confirmed that Afghan President Hamid Karzai immediately sent a delegation south to investigate the incident. One senior Afghan official, who asked to remain anonymous because he did not have permission to speak, echoed the Kandahari source's feeling that the killings may not lead to more violence, though it remains unclear. "The burning of the Korans was important and critical for all Muslims, and this was the actions of just one man. So after the investigation is complete, then we will know what will happen." U.S. President Barack Obama called the killings "tragic and shocking," and offered his condolences in a phone call to Karzai, the White House said.
The Afghan official also took a swipe at the foreign press for speculating that the recent spate of killings of U.S. and NATO military trainers by Afghan soldiers or insurgents dressed in Afghan army uniforms revealed a deep hostility and distrust. "This was the action of an individual, the same way one Afghan soldier does not represent the whole army," the source said. "When one Afghan soldier kills four French soldiers, that does not mean the entire Afghan army wants to kill all foreign soldiers. We must first find out why and how it happened."
Still, he added, "something needs to be done to calm the situation, especially for hard-core Muslims."
Hoping to take control of the story and blunt the feared wave of violence, the U.S. embassy and NATO reacted almost immediately. In a statement, NATO called the incident "appalling" and conveyed its "profound regrets and dismay at the actions apparently taken by one coalition member," adding that it could not "explain the motivation behind such callous acts, but they were in no way part of authorized ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] military activity."
In a separate statement, the U.S. embassy said the wounded were being given the "highest level of care," and that the U.S. deplores "any attack by a member of the U.S. Armed Forces against innocent civilians." The embassy even posted condolences on YouTube with versions available in Dari and Pashto the local languages in an exceptional move to try to influence the narrative.
The Taliban appeared to be moving just as quickly to win the battle to define the incident. A statement posted on the group's website within hours of the shootings said, "The so-called American peace keepers have once again quenched their thirst with the blood of innocent Afghan civilians in Kandahar province," adding that, "the American invaders backed by their puppets (ANA) left their base last night and raided several homes of locals," playing on repeated Afghan protests of NATO's extremely unpopular night raids. (ANA refers to the Afghan National Army.) The statement, which shows a gruesome picture of slain children, claimed that 50 bodies had been recovered but that more people remain unaccounted for and that some of the houses were burnt in an effort to make the attack look like an air strike.
In the photos, Afghan villagers can be seen crowded around bodies wrapped in bloody blankets. TIME's Afghan source in Panjwayi said the villagers were, like the Taliban, claiming the shootings were the work of more than one soldier since there was simultaneous firing in the north and south of the village. "This was not the job of one person," the source was told. Regardless of investigations, press releases and YouTube videos, experience has shown that in Afghanistan, rumor often eclipses fact, and prospects for winning this particular battle for "hearts and minds" are slim. Instead, the coming week may see a new wave of violence.
with reporting by Associated Press