KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) - Residents of an Afghan village near where an American soldier is alleged to have killed 16 civilians are convinced that the slayings were in retaliation for a roadside bomb attack on U.S. forces in the same area a few days earlier.
In accounts to The Associated Press and to Afghan government officials, the residents allege that U.S. troops lined up men from the village of Mokhoyan against a wall after the bombing on either March 7 or 8, and told them they would pay a price for the attack.
The lawyer for Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who is accused in the March 11 killings of the 16 civilians, has said that his client was upset because a buddy had lost a leg in an explosion on March 9.
It's unclear if the bombing cited by attorney John Henry Browne was the same as the one described by the villagers that prompted the alleged threats. After a meeting at a military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Browne said Bales told him a roadside bomb blew off the leg of one of his friends two days before the shootings occurred.
A spokesman for the U.S. military declined to give any information on the bombing or even confirm that it occurred, citing the investigation of the shootings. He also declined to comment on the allegation that U.S. troops threatened retaliation.
"The shooting incident as well as any possibilities that led up to it or might be associated with it will be investigated," Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said Tuesday.
Bales, 38, is suspected of leaving a U.S. base in Panjwai district of Kandahar province, entering homes and gunning down nine children, four men and three women before dawn on March 11 in the villages of Balandi and Alkozai. Mokhoyan is about 500 yards (meters) east of the base.
The shootings have further strained ties between the U.S. government and President Hamid Karzai who has accused the U.S. military of not cooperating with a delegation he appointed to investigate the killings.
Karzai's investigative team is not convinced that one soldier could have single-handedly left his base, walked to the two villages, and carried out the killings and set fire to some of the victims' bodies. The U.S. military has said that even though its investigation is continuing, everything currently points to one shooter.
The U.S. military does not release information on incidents such as roadside bombings if no coalition troops are killed so it has been impossible to independently confirm the eyewitness accounts.
Ghulam Rasool, a tribal elder from Panjwai district, gave an account of the bombing at a March 16 meeting in Kabul with Karzai in the wake of the shootings.
"After the incident, they took the wreckage of their destroyed tank and their wounded people from the area," Rasool said. "After that, they came back to the village nearby the explosion site.
"The soldiers called all the people to come out of their houses and from the mosque," he said.
"The Americans told the villagers `A bomb exploded on our vehicle. ... We will get revenge for this incident by killing at least 20 of your people,'" Rasool said. "These are the reasons why we say they took their revenge by killing women and children in the villages."
Naek Mohammad, who lives in Mokhoyan, told the AP that he was inside his home when he heard an explosion on March 8.
"At first I thought it was an airstrike," Mohammad said. "After some time I came out and talked with my neighbor. He told me that there was an explosion on NATO forces."
Mohammad said that as the two discussed the incident, two Afghan soldiers approached them and ordered them to join other men from the village who had been told to stand against a wall.
"One of the villagers asked what was happening," he said. "The Afghan army soldier told him `Shut up and stand there.'"
Mohammad said a U.S. soldier, speaking through a translator, then said: "I know you are all involved and you support the insurgents. So now, you will pay for it - you and your children will pay for this.'"
Mohammad's neighbor, Bakht Mohammad, and Ahmad Shah Khan, also of Mokhoyan, gave similar accounts.
The U.S. soldiers arrived in the village with their Afghan army counterparts and made many of the male villagers stand against a wall, Khan said.
"It looked like they were going to shoot us, and I was very afraid," said Khan. "Then a NATO soldier said through his translator that even our children will pay for this. Now they have done it and taken their revenge."
Several Afghan officials, including Kandahar lawmaker Abdul Rahim Ayubi, said people in the two villages that were attacked told them the same story.
Mohammad Sarwar Usmani, one of several lawmakers who went to the area to investigate the shootings, said that after hearing accounts by villagers, he believed their assertions that the slayings were carried out by more than one gunman and that they were in retaliation for the bombing.
Usmani also said that the Afghan National Army had confirmed to him that an explosion occurred
near Mokhoyan on March 8.
Abdul Salam, an Afghan soldier, showed an AP reporter in Panjwai district on March 13 the site of the blast, which made a large crater in the road. The soldier said the explosion occurred three days before the shootings. Salam said he helped gather the men in the village, but that he was not close enough to hear what the troops said to them.
The identity of the soldier who allegedly threatened the villagers is not known.
Riechmann reported from Kabul.