WASHINGTON — Senior U.S. officials were scrambling Sunday to determine what caused an American Army soldier to leave his base in southern Afghanistan and allegedly gun down as many as 16 Afghans in the early morning weekend hours.
Officials confirmed that the soldier was being detained in Kandahar and that the military was treating at least five wounded. One U.S. official said the soldier, an Army staff sergeant, was believed to have acted alone and that initial reports indicated he returned to the base after the shooting and turned himself in.
President Barack Obama offered condolences Sunday to the grieving families of those killed and to the people of Afghanistan. In a statement released by the White House, Obama called the attack "tragic and shocking" and not representative of "the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan." He also vowed "to get the facts as quickly as possible and to hold accountable anyone responsible."
Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, issued a statement pledging a "rapid and thorough investigation" into the shooting spree, and said the soldier will remain in U.S. custody.
The shootings come at a particularly sensitive and critical time for the U.S., just as violence over the burning of Muslim holy books at a U.S. base was starting to calm down. And it could further fuel calls for a more rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
The destruction of Qurans in a fire pit used to burn garbage last month sparked violent protests that killed some 30 people. Six U.S. service members were killed in attacks by Afghan security forces since the incident, which U.S. officials have apologized for and said was accidental.
Allen, in his statement, offered his regret and "deepest condolences" to the Afghan people for the Sunday shootings, and vowed that he will make sure that "anyone who is found to have committed wrong-doing is held fully accountable."
"This deeply appalling incident in no way represents the values of (International Security Assistance Force) and coalition troops or the abiding respect we feel for the Afghan people," said Allen. "Nor does it impugn or diminish the spirit of cooperation and partnership we have worked so hard to foster with the Afghan National Security Forces."
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said that Obama was briefed on the shooting incident. She said, "we are deeply concerned by the initial reports of this incident and are monitoring the situation closely."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta spoke with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to offer his "deepest condolences and profound regret for the tragic incident in Kandahar province."
Panetta issued a statement condemning the violence and saying he had assured the Afghan president that those responsible would be brought to justice following a full investigation.
Afghan officials reported that 16 people were killed including nine children and three women.