KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Afghan President Hamid Karzai has condemned a shooting spree by a suspected U.S. soldier that resulted in the deaths of 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children and three women.
"This is an assassination, an intentional killing of innocent civilians and cannot be forgiven," Karzai said in a statement.
U.S. President Barack Obama said he is "deeply saddened" over the killings and reiterated the respect the United States has for the Afghan people.
The unnamed U.S. soldier -- reportedly a staff sergeant -- is said to have walked off his base before dawn on March 11 and gone house-to-house in the Alekozai village of Kandahar Province's Panjwai district.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said it has arrested a soldier in connection with the shootings.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta assured Karzai by telephone that a full investigation is under way.
Reuters quotes witnesses as saying the shootings were carried out by a group of U.S. soldiers who were laughing and appeared to be drunk. The witnesses, including Haji Samad, who lost 11 of his relatives in the attack, said the soldiers later tried to burn the bodies.
'Profound Regret And Dismay'
"I wish to convey my profound regret and dismay at the actions apparently taken by one coalition member in Kandahar Province," said a statement from Lieutenant General Adrian Bradshaw, the deputy commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan.
I cannot explain the motivation behind such callous acts."
"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."
There is no immediate word about the motive for the shooting spree. Unconfirmed media reports suggested the soldier might have been suffering from a nervous breakdown.
Local people have gathered near the base to protest the killings.
'I Heard Gunshots'
A resident of Alekozai, where the shootings took place, told an Associated Press reporter that the U.S. service member went into three different houses and started shooting.
"When it was happening in the middle of the night, we were inside our houses," the villager, Abdul Baqi, said. "I heard gunshots and then silence and then gunshots again."
In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said "the United States extends its deepest condolences to the families of the victims of today’s tragic shooting incident in Kandahar Province. We are saddened by this violent act against our Afghan friends. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and their entire community.
"We deplore any attack by a member of the U.S. Armed Forces against innocent civilians, and denounce all violence against civilians," it continued. "We assure the people of Afghanistan that the individual or individuals responsible for this act will be identified and brought to justice."
The embassy advised residents and travelers in Kandahar to exercise caution due to reports of an ongoing protest in the area.
Civilian deaths committed by international forces fighting the Taliban insurgency have been a major source of friction between the Afghan government and its Western allies.
The March 11 attack comes just weeks after a Koran-burning incident at the Bagram air base stoked anti-American sentiments and sparked violent protests. NATO said it was a tragic blunder.
Thirty people were killed in protests. Six U.S. soldiers were killed by rogue Afghan soldiers.
With Reuters, AP, AFP, and dpa reports