Wednesday 17 January 2018

Village children tell of bloodbath

In this detail from a courtroom sketch, US army staff sgt Robert Bales is shown a preliminary military hearing in Washington state (AP)
In this detail from a courtroom sketch, US army staff sgt Robert Bales is shown a preliminary military hearing in Washington state (AP)

A US soldier accused of killing 16 civilians has watched as child after child described the bloodbath that left their parents and other loved ones dead in one of the worst atrocities of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

Whatever emotions Staff Sgt Robert Bales might have had were kept hidden behind a calm face at a military hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.

Three sessions of night-time evidence in Bales' preliminary hearing, to accommodate witnesses participating by video link from Afghanistan, have now wrapped up. After the hearing the investigating officer will decide whether to court-martial Bales, 39, from Lake Tapps, Washington, who could be sentenced to death if convicted.

Robina, just seven, who wore a deep-red head covering and a nervous smile, described how she hid behind her father when a gunman came to their village that night, how the stranger fired, and how her father died, cursing in pain and anger.

"I was standing behind my father," she said. "He shot my father." One of the bullets struck her in the leg, but she did not realise it right away.

Prosecutors say Bales slipped away from his base to attack two villages in Kandahar province, killing 16 civilians, including nine children. The killings drew such angry protests that the US temporarily halted combat operations in Afghanistan and it was three weeks before American investigators could reach the crime scenes.

The villagers also took out their anger on Afghan police, a police official from Kandahar said. Major Khudai Dad, chief of criminal techniques with the Afghan Uniform Police, said that at one of the compounds the morning after the attack, women upset about the attacks and about what they saw as a late arrival by Afghan officials pelted him with shoes - a major insult in Afghanistan and many other Islamic countries.

The stories recounted by the villagers have been harrowing. They described torched bodies, a son finding his wounded father, and boys cowering behind a curtain while others screamed, "We are children! We are children!"

Bales, an Ohio native and a father of two, has not entered a plea and was not expected to give evidence at the preliminary hearing. His lawyers have not discussed the evidence, but say he has post-traumatic stress disorder and suffered a concussive head injury while serving in Iraq.

During cross-examination of several witnesses, Bales' lawyer John Browne sought to elicit evidence about whether there might have been more than one shooter. Maj Dad said he did not believe one soldier could have carried out the attacks, though he offered no evidence to support that opinion and nearly all other evidence at the hearing pointed toward a single gunman.

Press Association

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