PANJWAI, Afghanistan — Stalking from home to home, a U.S. Army sergeant methodically killed at least 16 civilians, nine of them children, in a rural stretch of southern Afghanistan early Sunday, igniting fears of a new wave of anti-American hostility, Afghan and U.S. officials said.
Residents of three villages in the Panjwai District of Kandahar province described a terrifying string of attacks in which the soldier, who had walked more than a mile from his base, tried door after door, eventually breaking in to kill within three separate houses. At the first, the man gathered 11 bodies, including those of four girls younger than 6, and set fire to them, villagers said.
Coming after a period of deepening public outrage, spurred by the Koran burning by U.S. personnel last month and an earlier video showing U.S. Marines urinating on dead Afghans, the apparently unprovoked killings added to a feeling of siege here among Western personnel.
Officials described a growing sense of concern over a cascading series of missteps and offenses that has cast doubt on the ability of NATO personnel to carry out their mission and has left troops and trainers increasingly vulnerable to violence by Afghans seeking revenge.
President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack, calling it an “inhuman and intentional act” and demanding justice.
Both President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called Karzai, expressing condolences and promising thorough investigations.
“This incident is tragic and shocking, and does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan,” Obama said in a statement.
U.S. officials in Kabul were scrambling to understand what had happened, and they appealed for calm.
Officials gave no details about the suspected killer other than to describe him as an Army staff sergeant who was acting alone and who had surrendered himself for arrest.
“The initial reporting that we have at this time indicates there was one shooter, and we have one man in custody,” said Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a NATO spokesman.
A senior U.S. military official confirmed Sunday evening that the sergeant was attached to a unit based at Fort Lewis, near Tacoma, Wash., and that he had been part of what is called a village stabilization operation in Afghanistan, in which teams of Green Berets, supported by other soldiers, try to develop close ties with village elders, organize local police units and track down Taliban leaders. The official said the sergeant was not a Green Beret himself and had been deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan at least once before his current tour of duty.
In Panjwai, a reporter who inspected bodies that had been taken to the nearby U.S. military base counted 16 dead and saw burns on some of the children's legs and heads.
“All the family members were killed, the dead put in a room, and blankets were put over the corpses and they were burned,” said Anar Gula, an elderly neighbor who rushed to the house after the soldier had left. “We put out the fire.”
The villagers also brought some of the burned blankets on motorbikes to display at the base, Camp Belambay, in Kandahar, and show that the bodies had been set on fire. Soon, more than 300 people had gathered outside to protest.
At least five other Afghans were wounded in the attacks, officials said, some of them seriously, indicating that the death toll could rise. NATO said several casualties were being treated at a military hospital.
One of the survivors from the attack, Abdul Hadi, 40, said he was at home when a soldier broke down the door.
“My father went out to find out what was happening, and he was killed,” he said. “I was trying to go out and find out about the shooting but someone told me not to move, and I was covered by the women in my family in my room, so that is why I survived.”
Hadi said there was more than one soldier involved in the attack, and at least five other villagers described seeing a number of soldiers and a helicopter and flares at the scene. But that claim was unconfirmed — other Afghan residents described seeing only one shooter — and it was unclear whether extra troops had been sent out to the village after the attack to catch the suspect.
In a measure of the mounting levels of mistrust between Afghans and the coalition, many Afghans, including lawmakers and other officials, said they believed that the attack had been planned and were incredulous that one U.S. soldier could have carried out such an attack without help.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, news of the killings was spreading slowly. Other than the protest at the base in Kandahar, there were no immediate signs of the fury that fueled rioting across the country following the burning of Korans by U.S. military personnel in February.
Both the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and the military coalition rushed to head off any further outrage, deploring the attack, offering condolences to the families and promising that the soldier would be brought to justice. Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, the NATO spokesman, expressed his “deep sadness” and said that while the motive for the attack was not yet clear, it looked like an isolated incident.
The quick U.S. move on Sunday to detain the shooting suspect could help to avoid a repeat of last month's unrest. The reaction to the Koran-burning incident revealed the huge cultural gap between the Americans, who saw it as an unfortunate mistake, and the Afghans, who viewed it as a crime and wanted to see those responsible tried as criminals.
But both the Afghans and U.S. officials agreed on the severity of Sunday's killings, and Jacobson said the case would be aggressively pursued by U.S. legal authorities.