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Afghan villagers moved back home to find peace, but death found them

By Sara Sidner, CNN
March 13, 2012 -- Updated 0343 GMT (1143 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "They are 2-year-olds. Are these Talibs?" a grief-stricken woman says
  • Investigators comb the villages where Sunday's killings took place
  • U.S. commanders say a single soldier, acting alone, was behind the killings

Editor's note: This story contains graphic content.

Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN) -- In a village in the district of Panjwai, in Kandahar province, a young man sits against a tree with his knees to his chest and his head hanging down. When he lifts his head, his eyes are full of tears.

The reason for his sorrow is lying in the back of pickup trucks a few yards away.

In the back of the trucks, a dead toddler with a bloodstained face lies between two dead men. In another truck, a blanket is pulled back to reveal the charred legs and feet of two more bodies. All of them are villagers killed in an attack while they slept in their homes before dawn Sunday.

They are some of the 16 victims of what Afghan officials have said was a rampage by a U.S. soldier from a base in western Kandahar.

Confusion, outrage follow massacre

"One guy came in and pulled a boy from his sleep and he shot him in this doorway. Then they came back inside the room and put a gun in the mouth of one child and stomped on another child," a mother said as she sat in her home.

Another mother was filled with rage and sorrow as she sat in one of the vehicles transporting the dead.

"Four girls and four boys. They are 2-year-olds. Are these Talibs?" she barked.

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The Taliban have vowed revenge for the incident, but so far, no violent protests have erupted. Meanwhile, the families in the two villages where the shooting occurred spent the day burying their loved ones.

The western district has been known to be a hotbed of Taliban activity, even considered the birthplace of the Taliban. But the woman said she swears she hadn't seen Taliban fighters in five months.

She said she was one of many who had moved back to the village because people on the nearby military base had said it was safe to return home, and that nobody would bother them.

"This base told us to come back to our villages ... we will not bother you. This is your land, and this is your own village," she said. "But these dogs came and grabbed us."

President Barack Obama and other top U.S. officials have expressed their sorrow and condolences to the families. But that had little meaning in the village, where a local minister said one family lost 11 members Sunday.

"Look at these bodies. They all belong to one family," one of the villagers said through tears.

Old and young men alike wept openly, while investigators sifted through the grisly scene picking up shell casings and picking through at least one home where the floors and walls were stained with blood.

Sorrow was soon replaced by anger at American forces. Some of the villagers said there was more than one soldier on the ground when the killings occurred.

But the International Security Assistance Force, the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan, said that was not the case -- that the killings appear to be the result of a single soldier, who walked away from his outpost and acted alone.

How will slaughter affect the NATO military mission?

There was new information Monday about the soldier accused of the killings. A Department of Defense official told CNN the man, a staff sergeant, was a qualified infantry sniper, trained to hit to kill at about 800 meters. He had spent three tours of duty in Iraq, where he suffered a traumatic brain injury in a 2010 vehicle accident.

After treatment, he was cleared to return to duty and was serving his first tour in Afghanistan.

The massacre has further inflamed tensions between U.S. and Afghan leaders and the people of Afghanistan. Afghan lawmakers have asked for a public trial to be held on Afghan soil, but Pentagon spokesman George Little said the case would be handled by the American military.

"The soldier was never in the custody of Afghan forces and will not face punishment under the Afghan justice system," Little said. "The U.S. military has strong means to address wrongdoing. There is an agreement in place with the government of Afghanistan, so that the investigation -- and when appropriate, prosecution -- will be done through U.S. military channels."

But village tribal leaders said their people can't comprehend how a trained professional soldier could have acted alone and done such a thing.

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