The Afghan parliament demanded on Monday that a US soldier accused of killing 16 civilians, including nine children, be put on trial in Afghanistan as a growing tide of local anger added to the pressure on the US-led war against the Taliban.
The murders have triggered a new spike in anti-western sentiment just weeks after furious protests erupted after the discovery of burnt copies of the Koran at a US base.
US officials have rushed to condemn the killings and pledged that the accused soldier will face justice. The sergeant detained on Sunday is accused of going house to house in a remote community near Kandahar and shooting men, women and children.
The combination of resentment in Afghanistan and revulsion in the west has dealt a fresh blow to the Nato-led force struggling to convince Afghans and voters among troop-contributing nations that it is winning the war.
“Yesterday’s incident in Kandahar is inexplicable; it cannot be forgiven on any account,” said Shinki Karokheel, a member of parliament from Kabul.
Resentment has been building in Afghanistan for years over night raids by US and Afghan forces on homes sheltering Afghan insurgents and civilian casualties caused by wayward coalition air strikes – even though the majority of civilian deaths are inflicted by insurgents, according to UN data.
The force is due to start handing over security responsibility in some of the most contested parts of the country over the next few years, placing a premium on close co-operation between Afghan and western forces, and popular support for the coalition. The US and its allies plan to wind down their combat role by the end of 2014.
But the weekend killings have driven another wedge between Afghans and the Nato forces deployed to protect them. Reports that the shooter was suffering some form of breakdown garnered little sympathy.
“The Americans are lying by saying that this soldier had a mental problem,” said Mohammad Akbar Stanekzai, a member of parliament. “If he had a mental problem he should have killed Americans in his base rather than coming out and killing civilians.”
Fresh details of the massacre filtered out of the Panjwai district in the southern Kandahar province on Monday. Locals said the gunman left his base in the early hours of Sunday, walked about a mile, then entered several homes and began firing.
`”He was walking around taking up positions in the house – in two or three places like he was searching,’’ said 26-year-old witness Mohammad Zahir, who watched the gunman while hiding in another room. `”He was on his knees when he shot my father in the thigh,” he told the Associated Press. His father was wounded but survived.
Some witnesses said they believed it was impossible that a single gunman could have shed so much blood, but George Little, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said every indication suggested the gunman had acted alone.
Mr Little offered no explanation for the possible motive, but added that the soldier, who is now in custody, had served three tours of duty in Iraq, and this was his first tour in Afghanistan.
The killings have undermined Washington’s attempts to forge an agreement to guarantee a US troop presence in Afghanistan until 2024 – which is seen as vital to cementing a broader western commitment not to abandon the country.
Some progress was made last week when the US and Afghan governments reached a deal over handing over the control of prisons, but some Afghan politicians have demanded a halt to the talks since the killings.
The US embassy and the international force in Afghanistan was braced for the possibility of protests or a repeat of the attacks on US facilities and personnel that took place during the Koran burning riots. Six US soldiers were shot dead by members of the Afghan security forces during those protests.