Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Afghan Resistance Attack Event for Slain Civilians

Insurgents attack event for slain Afghan civilians

By Matthew Rosenberg and Taimoor Shah New York Times
March 14, 2012

PANJWAI, Afghanistan - Militants riding motorcycles attacked a high-level Afghan government delegation during a memorial service Tuesday in the village where a US soldier allegedly killed 16 people, mostly children and women, in a door-to-door rampage two days earlier.

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; General Shir Muhammad Karami, the chief of staff of the Afghan Army; the provincial governor, Tooryalai Wesa; and the deputy interior minister, General Abdul Rahman Rahman. They appeared to have escaped unharmed and after the gunfire subsided sped back to Kandahar city, the provincial capital, on a highway closed to other traffic.

Abdul Rahim Ayobi, a member of Parliament from Kandahar Province, said bullets had struck near the delegation. An Afghan military prosecutor and a second person were injured, said General Abdul Raziq, the Kandahar provincial police chief who confirmed the soldier’s death.

The militants were armed with machine guns and assault rifles. They appeared to have suffered some casualties and left behind at least one of their motorcycles.

As word of the attack on the delegation spread, the government’s media center in Kandahar initially denied it had taken place, writing on Twitter: “Media! plz don’t publish things which aren’t confirmed, there is no combat, there is no fire, all is well. everything calm and safe.’’

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 US government also plans to pay compensation, although it is not clear how much or when.

On Tuesday, President Obama called the killings “outrageous and unacceptable,’’ and he promised a thorough and unstinting Pentagon investigation.

“The United States takes this as seriously as if it was our own citizens, and our children, who were murdered,’’ Obama said. “We’re heartbroken over the loss of innocent life.’’

Obama sounded stern and emotional in brief remarks on the weekend killings made before an unrelated White House event.

“I’ve directed the Pentagon to make sure that we spare no effort in conducting a full investigation,’’ Obama said. “We will follow the facts wherever they lead us, and we will make sure that anybody who is involved is held fully accountable with the full force of the law.

A senior military official said investigators are looking into the possibility that alcohol played a role.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is underway, said it is unclear whether the suspect had been drinking before disappearing from his base or whether alcohol was simply found in his living space.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the death penalty could be possible in the case.

Despite the deepening antipathy to US 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 Koran by US 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 Obama 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 US soldier accused of carrying out the killings and urged Karzai not to sign a strategic partnership deal that is being negotiated with the United States. The soldier will be tried through the military justice system, US officials say.

The United States has stressed that it considers 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 US-led coalition and the Taliban in the past decade.

The Taliban have sworn revenge for the massacre. A vitriolic statement Tuesday, the group’s third since the killings, threatened the dead civilians would be avenged by the beheading of any US soldiers captured by the insurgents. Calling themselves “the Islamic Emirate mujahedeen’’ and “the true defenders of our oppressed people,’’ they warned US forces that “nothing will content us but avenging every single one of the martyrs, with the help of God, by killing and beheading your sadist soldier in every inch of the country.’’

The Taliban have on rare occasions captured US and allied soldiers, but most people seized by the militants have been aid workers and journalists.

The Taliban’s statement also claimed the killings had been carried out by more than one US soldier, echoing allegations by many politicians, religious leaders, and ordinary people in Afghanistan.

During remarks at the memorial Tuesday, Karami, the army chief of staff, said the government was investigating.

“We can’t say whether one individual or several are involved in shooting,’’ he said, “but we are working hard, and we will meet the Special Operations commander and other officials.’’

US 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. On his first tour in Afghanistan, he arrived in December.

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