Esaqzai, who said he saw 16 bodies, said villagers told him that around midnight, 11 people — three women, four children ranging in age from 6 to 9, and four men — were executed inside the home of a village elder.
“They entered the room where the women and children were sleeping, and they were all shot in the head,” Esaqzai said, adding that he was doubtful of the U.S. account suggesting that the killings were the work of a lone gunman. “They were all shot in the head.”
About an hour later, residents in a nearby village heard gunshots, and they later discovered the corpses of five men inside two houses located near each other, Esaqzai said.
Karzai’s statement said nine of the 16 victims were children. In addition, at least five people wounded in the incident were being treated at a U.S. military medical facility.
Afghan and American officials braced for a larger outcry later in the week.
“I cannot explain the motivation behind such callous acts,” Lt. Gen. Adrian J. Bradshaw, the deputy commander of the international coalition in Afghanistan, said in a statement. “They were in no way part of authorized military activity.”
Gen. John R. Allen, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, pledged a thorough investigation and full cooperation with Afghan authorities.
The Taliban characterized the incident as a “massacre” committed during the course of a night raid by American and Afghan forces. “The so-called American peace keepers have once again quenched their thirst with the blood of innocent Afghan civilians,” the Taliban statement said.
Panjwai, southwest of Kandahar city, has been one of the most challenging battlegrounds for international forces. The area was the cradle of the Taliban movement in the early 1990s, and the militant group has fought hard to maintain sway over villages there.
Wresting Kandahar province from Taliban control was one of the chief objectives of Obama’s 2009 troop surge. U.S. military officials say they have been largely successful in restoring a semblance of Afghan government control in areas once commanded by the Taliban. But as the footprint of foreign troops starts to shrink in the south, many Afghans fear that the Taliban will regain lost ground.
Anger over the Koran burnings last month sparked nationwide riots and was cited as motivation for at least some of the fatal attacks on six U.S. military personnel. But reaction to the incineration of the holy books — which U.S. officials said was accidental — was relatively muted in the south.
Strains on partnership
The death toll Sunday was far higher than in the notorious string of killings carried out in 2010 by a rogue U.S. Army platoon that became known as the “kill team.” The slaying of at least three men in Kandahar’s Maywand district became one of the biggest scandals of the war, after investigators found that soldiers had kept body parts as trophies and passed off unarmed victims as insurgents.
Afghans were also angered this year when a video showing Marines urinating on the bodies of suspected insurgents was posted online.
The partnership between Karzai’s government and the Obama administration has been sorely tested in recent weeks by the Koran burnings, the killings of U.S. troops by their Afghan partners and other issues. Although the problems have led to increased calls by some American lawmakers for a speedier withdrawal, U.S. military officials said they were determined to absorb the political fallout and public anger that have been generated.
“We’re fully cognizant that even things that are unrelated can have an impact,” added a senior U.S. defense official in Washington, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “But we see no demonstrable effect on our operations or on our broader ability to work with our Afghan partners.”
Hamdard is a special correspondent. Staff writer Craig Whitlock in Washington contributed to this report.