American opens fire on Afghans, 15 dead

HEIDI VOGT MIRWAIS KHAN Associated Press Published:

BALANDI, Afghanistan (AP) -- A U.S. service member walked out of a base in southern Afghanistan before dawn Sunday and started shooting Afghan civilians, according to villagers and Afghan and NATO officials. Villagers showed an Associated Press photographer 15 bodies, including women and children, and alleged they were killed by the American.

The shooting looks certain to deepen strains between U.S. forces and their Afghan hosts after weeks of violence triggered by Americans burning Muslim holy books at a U.S. base. The burnings sparked violent protests and attacks that killed some 30 people. Six U.S. service members have been killed in attacks by their Afghan colleagues since the Quran burnings came to light.

NATO officials apologized for Sunday's shootings.

"I wish to convey my profound regrets and dismay at the actions apparently taken by one coalition member in Kandahar province, said a statement from Lt. Gen. Adrian Bradshaw, the deputy commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. "One of our soldiers is reported to have killed and injured a number of civilians in villages adjacent to his base. I cannot explain the motivation behind such callous acts, but they were in no way part of authorized ISAF military activity."

The shooting took place in two villages in the Panjwai district of southern Kandahar province -- Balandi and Alkozai. The villages are about 500 yards (meters) away from a U.S. base.

The shooting started around 3 a.m., said Asadullah Khalid, the government representative for southern Afghanistan and a member of the delegation that went to investigate the incident. He said that he had tallied 16 dead. There was no way to immediately reconcile the different death tolls.

Alkozai resident Abdul Baqi said he heard the gunshots during the night but only found out about the deaths afterward when he talked neighbors who said the man had come into their homes shooting.

"When it was happening in the middle of the night, we were inside our houses. I heard gunshots and then silence and then gunshots again," Baqi said.

An AP photographer saw 15 bodies between the two villages. Some of the bodies had been burned, while others were covered with blankets.

NATO spokesman Justin Brockhoff said a U.S. service member had been detained as the alleged shooter. The victims were evacuated to NATO medical facilities, he said.