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US soldier Bales, accused of Afghan rampage, defers plea

Robert Bales has asked a judge if he can defer his plea in a military tribunal where he could face the death penalty. Prosecutors allege that the soldier left his Afghan base one night and killed 16 civilians.

Staff Sergeant Robert Bales asked to defer his plea on an array of charges, including 16 counts of premeditated murder, at a military tribunal near Tacoma in the state of Washington.

Bales entered his deferred plea through one of his defense attorneys, telling the judge he understood that the charges against him could carry the death penalty.

Prosecutors allege that Bales crept away from his remote base in southern Afghanistan on the night of March 11, 2012, single-handedly attacking a pair of nearby villages.

The 39-year-old soldier, a veteran of four combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, is facing 16 charges of murder, six of attempted murder, seven of assault and two of using drugs. Seventeen of the 22 people killed or wounded were women or children, most sustained bullet wounds to the head.

The shootings occurred over a five-hour period. Prosecutors say Bales left the base twice in that time, returning midway through his attacks to tell a fellow soldier: "I just shot up some people."

Witnesses speaking at a pre-trial hearing said that Bales was upset after a bomb blast severed a fellow soldier's leg a few days prior to his alleged actions. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment in the southern province of Kandahar at the time.

The military tribunal is being held at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord, 9.1 miles (14.6 kilometers) from Tacoma. Bales remains in custody at the base pending his trial.

The killings were a further strain on tense ties between Washington and the Afghan government in Kabul.

Bales' wife Kari issued a statement on Wednesday asking that her husband receive a fair trial and be considered innocent until proven guilty.

"I no longer know if a fair trial for Bob is possible, but it very much is my hope and I will have faith," she said, alluding to the intense scrutiny surrounding the incident.

msh/hc (AFP, AP, Reuters)