US President Barack Obama has offered his condolences after an American soldier allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians in a rampage. The incident is expected to raise tensions between the US forces and Afghans.
US and NATO officials shifted their efforts to damage control on Sunday after an American soldier went on what witnesses say was a shooting spree in southern Afghanistan, killing 16 people.
US President Barack Obama called his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, to express his "shock and sadness" at the news of the shooting spree.
"President Obama extended his condolences to the people of Afghanistan and made clear his administration's committment to establish the facts as quickly as possible and to hold fully accountable anyone responsible," a White House statement said. "The president reaffirmed our deep respect for the Afghan people and the bonds between our two countries."
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had spoken with President Karzai earlier in the day.
"I condemn such violence and am shocked and saddened that a US service member is alleged to be involved, clearly acting outside his chain of command," Panetta said in a statement. "A full investigation is already under way. A suspect is in custody and I gave President Karzai my assurances that we will bring those responsible to justice."
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said that a US soldier had been detained in connection with the incident.
Afghan officials said a US soldier had opened fire after entering people's homes in Balandi Pul in Panjwai district, about 35 kilometers from Kandahar city. Women and children were among the 16 people killed, while five others were injured.
President Karzai expressed anger at the news of the killings and demanded an explanation from US officials.
"This is an assassination, an intentional killing of innocent civilians and cannot be forgiven," he said in a statement released by his office.
A senior Washington-based US defense official quoted by Reuters rejected witness accounts that several soldiers had been involved in the killings.
"We believe one US service member acted alone, not a group of US soldiers," the official said.
Reuters quoted a village neighbor, Agha Lala, as saying that a group of soldiers had entered the locality at about 2 a.m. "They were all drunk and shooting all over the place," the neighbor told Reuters.
ISAF's commander, US General John Allen, pledged that the force would fully cooperate with Afghan authorities in the investigation.
Sunday's killings were expected to once again raise tensions between the US forces and the Afghan population, which had just begun to ease following sometimes deadly protests that broke out after locals discovered that US forces had burned copies of the Quran, along with trash last month.
President Obama also apologized for that incident at the Bagram base, saying that the copies of the Muslim holy book were burned by mistake and pledging a full investigation into the affair. Afghan laborers had discovered charred copies of the book while collecting garbage at the base.
pfd/ipj (Reuters, AP, dpa, AFP)