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Afghan villagers describe slaying's horror, differ on number involved

From Sara Sidner, CNN
March 19, 2012 -- Updated 1745 GMT (0145 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Villagers recount massacre in Najabyan for which a U.S. soldier is accused
  • Two young witnesses say only one gunman was involved
  • Adults cite evidence that several more soldiers were there during the March 11 incident
  • The raid was not conducted like a joint operation, an Afghan parliamentarian tells CNN

Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN) -- In Najabyan village, a visitor's eye is immediately drawn to the turquoise and green sheets blanketing mounds of dirt, and the red, green and gold flag flying above it all.

Those are the only bits of color in the otherwise gray and brown landscape of Afghanistan's Kandahar province.

But underneath the colorful cloth is a stark reminder of a terrible moment in the village's history.

The sheets cover the graves of victims from a March 11 massacre that is being blamed on a U.S. soldier who is accused of sneaking off his base and going on a shooting rampage in the dead of night, killing 16 civilians, including children.

Ali Ahmad, one of the villagers, holds a blood-stained pillow in his home, then goes to his neighbor's home and shows blood splatter on a wall as he describes what he remembers.

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"It was around 3 at night that they entered the room. They took my uncle out of the room and shot him after asking him, 'Where is the Taliban?'

"My uncle replied that he didn't know," Ahmad said.

Ahmad used "they" but did not say more than one soldier was in his home.

He said things only got worse from there.

"Finally they came to this room and martyred all the children in this room. There was even a 2-month-old among these children," he said.

Once the shooting stopped, the villagers said, some of the dead were piled in a room and set on fire.

Hours after the shooting, dawn revealed the burned bodies and dead babies. Villagers laid them side by side in truck beds to be taken to a burial ground.

NATO and U.S. officials have said this was the work of a single soldier who was not on any mission and was acting on his own.

Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is under arrest, accused in the crime, and is being held at the U.S. military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, while the military prepares charges.

Stunned friends recall good deeds of suspect

Most of the villagers say they do not believe the U.S. version of events, but accounts from eyewitnesses conflict.

One of the young boys who were there recounted it this way:

"He said, "Hello, hello Taliban, Taliban. We told him there is no Taliban here, but he broke the cupboards." He added, "He was an American."

Another boy chimes in: "It was just one person."

And although some adults in the village said they have evidence more than one soldier was involved, none has said that more than one soldier was firing a weapon.

"They went through the field of wheat and there were the footprints of no less than 15 people. There were signs of knee prints as well." Ahmad said.

In an exclusive interview, a Taliban commander from the Panjwai district told CNN:

"We don't think that (only) one American soldier was involved in the attack. The foreigners and the puppet regime are blind to the truth of what happened there. But if this was the act of one soldier, we want this soldier to be prosecuted in Afghanistan and according to Islamic law. The Afghans should prosecute him."

The commander said he didn't want to be named, and during the interview he kept all but his eyes covered to hide his identity.

After the attack, the Taliban suspended initial peace talks with the United States.

The Taliban commander said two previous events -- the burning of Qurans in February by U.S. troops and the rescinded U.S. offer to move five Taliban members from detention in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar -- figured into the suspension of talks.

"Our peace talks with the Americans were limited to discuss the prisoner deal. And those promises were not kept by the Americans," The commander said.

But the U.S. State Department said it has not yet made any decision on the transfer.

The Taliban commander was not in his home district when he responded to questions sent to him by CNN. He had fled to the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Night raids conducted by NATO and Afghan forces jointly have been very effective against the Taliban, but civilian casualties, in particular the Najabyan massacre, have put relations between Afghanistan and the United States, as President Hamid Karzai put it, "at the end of their rope."

Karzai demanded troops withdraw from villages and return to their bases, and is pressing for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force to hand over security responsibility to Afghan forces by 2013, a year ahead of the agreed-upon plan.

Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States insisted Sunday that his nation trusts the U.S. investigation into the rampage. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has promised Karzai a full investigation and said the United States will bring the shooter to justice.

But neither U.S. nor Afghan officials have said any kind of raid took place in the villages of Panjwai district where the massacre occurred. One Afghan parliamentarian told CNN what happened in Panjwai is just not the way the joint raids are conducted.

Afghan investigators said in an effort to prove it was the work of only one person, U.S. officials even showed Afghan officials a surveillance video they said shows the soldier turning himself in after returning to base.

But in the streets and in the Afghan Presidential Palace, anger and skepticism reign. Nowhere is it stronger than one of the villages where residents have had to bury their dead.

"We have a message for all the men and women of America and Britain," Najabyan villager Toor Jan said. "You have sent us the terrorists. You have sent them (the NATO troops) to fight al Qaeda. But they are not fighting al Qaeda, but instead killing our children."

Journalists Fazal Ahad and Ruhullah Khapalwak contributed to this report.

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