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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Several Afghans near the villages where an American soldier is alleged to have killed 16 civilians say U.S. troops lined them up against a wall after a roadside bombing and told them that they, and even their children, would pay a price for the attack.
Residents have given similar accounts to both The Associated Press and to Afghan government officials about an alleged bombing in the vicinity, which they said occurred March 7 or 8, and left U.S. troops injured. The residents also said they are convinced that the slayings of the 16 villagers just days later was in retaliation for that bomb.
Although the villagers' accounts could not be independently confirmed, their claim that the shootings by a U.S. soldier may have been payback for a roadside bombing has gained wide currency in the area and has been repeated by politicians testifying about the incident to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 38, is suspected of leaving a U.S. base in Panjwai district, entering homes and gunning down nine children, four men and three women before dawn on March 11 in the villages of Balandi and Alkozai. Villagers said the earlier bombing occurred in Mokhoyan, a village about 500 yards east of the base.
A lawyer for Bales in the United States also suggested that Bales was motivated by a bombing in the area.
However, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan declined to give any information on the bombing or even confirm that it occurred, citing the ongoing investigation into the shootings. He also declined to comment on the suggestions that U.S. troops had threatened villagers with retaliation.
"The shooting incident as well as any possibilities that led up to it or might be associated with it will be investigated," Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, the spokesman, said Tuesday.
One Mokhoyan resident, Ahmad Shah Khan, told The Associated Press that after the bombing, U.S. soldiers and their Afghan army counterparts arrived in his village and made many of the male villagers stand against a wall.
"It looked like they were going to shoot us, and I was very afraid," Khan said. "Then a NATO soldier said through his translator that even our children will pay for this. Now they have done it and taken their revenge."
Neighbors of Khan gave similar accounts to the AP, and several Afghan officials, including Kandahar lawmaker Abdul Rahim Ayubi, said people in the two villages that were attacked told them the same story.
Mohammad Sarwar Usmani, one of several lawmakers who went to the area, said the Afghan National Army had confirmed to him that an explosion occurred near Mokhoyan on March 8.
On March 13, Afghan soldier Abdul Salam showed an AP reporter the site of a blast that made a large crater in the road in Panjwai district of Kandahar province, where the shootings occurred. The soldier said the explosion occurred March 8. Salam said he helped gather men in the village, and that troops spoke to them, but he was not close enough to hear what they said.
Ghulam Rasool, a tribal elder from Panjwai district of Kandahar province, where the shootings occurred, gave an account of the bombing at a March 16 meeting in Kabul with President Hamid Karzai.
"After the incident, they took the wreckage of their destroyed tank and their wounded people from the area," Rasool said. "After that, they came back to the village nearby the explosion site.
"The soldiers called all the people to come out of their houses and from the mosque," he said.
"The Americans told the villagers, 'A bomb exploded on our vehicle. ... We will get revenge for this incident by killing at least 20 of your people,'" Rasool said. "These are the reasons why we say they took their revenge by killing women and children in the villages."
Bales' lawyer, John Henry Browne, has said that his client was upset because a buddy had lost a leg in an explosion on March 9. It's unclear if the bombing cited by Browne was the same as the one described by the villagers. After a meeting at a military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Browne said Bales told him a roadside bomb blew off the leg of one of his friends two days before the shootings occurred.
Karzai's investigative team is not convinced that one soldier could have single-handedly left his base, walked to the two villages, and carried out the killings and set fire to some of the victims' bodies. The U.S. military has said that even though its investigation is continuing, everything currently points to one shooter.
Villagers in Mokhoyan, meanwhile, are convinced that the shootings were a case of revenge.
Naek Mohammad, who lives in Mokhoyan, told the AP that he heard an explosion March 8 and went outside. As he and a neighbor talked about what happened, he said, two Afghan soldiers ordered them to join other men from the village who had been told to stand against a wall.
"One of the villagers asked what was happening," he said. "The Afghan army soldier told him, 'Shut up and stand there.'"
Mohammad said a U.S. soldier, speaking through a translator, then said: "I know you are all involved and you support the insurgents. So now, you will pay for it — you and your children will pay for this.'"
None of the villagers could identify the soldier who they said issued the threat.
Riechmann reported from Kabul.