Tuesday 13 March 2012

Taliban fire at delegates visiting Afghan massacre site


Taliban militants opened fire on an Afghan government delegation visiting one of the two villages in southern Afghanistan where a US soldier is suspected of killing 16 Afghan civilians. The delegation was talking with families of the victims in Balandi village on Tuesday when they heard shooting, said Qayum Karzai, a brother of the Afghan president who was part of the group. He said he did not believe anyone was killed in the attack, but he had heard reports of one person wounded in the foot. "We were giving them our condolences, then we heard two very, very light shots," said Karzai. "Then we assumed that it was the national army that started to fire in the air." He said that the members of the delegation were safe and were heading back to Kandahar city. An Associated Press reporter accompanying the delegation said the gunfire came from two different directions. The US is holding an army staff sergeant in custody who is suspected of carrying out the killings before dawn on Sunday in two villages close to his base in Kandahar province's Panjwai district, considered the birthplace of the Taliban. Villagers have described him stalking from house to house in the middle of the night, opening fire on sleeping families and then burning some of the bodies. Nine of the 16 killed were children, and three were women, according to Karzai. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid vowed to take revenge for the attack in a statement sent to reporters on Tuesday. He said the soldier should be tried as a war criminal and executed by the victims' relatives. Also on Tuesday, hundreds of students in eastern Afghanistan shouted angry slogans against the US and the American soldier accused of carrying out the killings, the first significant protest in response to the tragedy. The killings have caused outrage in Afghanistan but have not sparked the kind of violent protests seen last month after American soldiers burned Muslim holy books and other Islamic texts. Afghans have become used to dealing with civilian casualties in over a decade of war. Some have said the deaths in Panjwai were more in keeping with Afghans' experience of deadly night raids and air strikes by US-led forces than the Qur'an burnings were. But the students protesting at a university in Jalalabad city, 80 miles east of the capital Kabul, were incensed. "Death to America!" and "Death to the soldier who killed our civilians!" shouted the crowd. Some carried a banner that called for a public trial of the soldier, whom US officials have identified as a married, 38-year-old father of two who was trained as a sniper and recently suffered a head injury in Iraq. Other protesters burned an effigy of Barack Obama. "The reason we are protesting is because of the killing of innocent children and other civilians by this tyrant US soldier," said Sardar Wali, a university student. "We want the United Nations and the Afghan government to publicly try this guy." Obama has expressed his shock and sadness and extended his condolences to the families of the victims. But he has also said the horrific episode would not speed up plans to pull out foreign forces, despite increasing opposition at home to the war in Afghanistan.