DISTRAUGHT and furious Afghans vowed vengeance yesterday after a US soldier apparently walked from a Nato base into the homes of civilians, turning his weapon on the families inside and killing 16 people, nine of them children.
The Afghan Ministry of Interior has urged people to show restraint until investigators have completed their inquiry, but concerns are mounting that the incident will re-ignite violent protests that swept Afghanistan last month after US servicemen burnt copies of the Koran at Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul.
Nazim Shah returned to his home in Panjwai district from a trip to Kandahar to find his entire family killed.
Sobbing into the phone, he told The Independent: "All my family is dead. We will get revenge on those who killed my family. We wonit let this rest easily."
The attack comes at a crucial time, as President Hamid Karzai and US officials, under strained relations, negotiate a future role for foreign forces after Nato troops hand over security to Afghan forces in 2014.
Witnesses and officials gave differing accounts of yesterdayis events, but it appears that the soldier, as yet unnamed, left the joint US-Afghan Zangebad base at about 3am.
He walked to the villages of Balandi and Alkozai, about a kilometre away, and began the killings which left nine children, three women and four men dead.
Five more were wounded.
"The US soldier attacked three different houses, killing 11 people in the first house, four in the second house and one in the third house," said Mahammad, a tribal elder in Panjwai.
"The 11 people who were first shot dead were brought together in one home and the soldier put pillows, sticks and blankets on them and burnt them."
Photographs of the victims showed burn injuries.
General Carsten Jacobson, spokesman for the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), confirmed that the soldier went back to the base and gave himself up, and was in detention.
Reports suggest he is an army staff sergeant, although most of the soldiers at Zangebad are Special Forces troops, according to an Afghan official familiar with the facility.
American officials were swift to try to limit the damage, with the US commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, issuing a statement pledging a "rapid and thorough investigation" with anyone found to have committed wrongdoing to be held "fully accountable".
President Barack Obama called the attack "tragic and shocking".
Mr Karzai - who said the death toll was 16, which Nato has yet to confirm - sent a high-level delegation from the ministries of defence and interior, the National Directorate of Security and the National Security Council to investigate.
In a statement, he strongly condemned the incident, which he called "an intentional act" against civilians.
Nato officials will now have to wait to see whether the promise of investigations will be enough, or whether the incident will spark another round of retribution and bloodshed.
Haji Aghalalai Dastgiri, an elder from Panjwai and a member of Kandahar's provincial council, told The Independent that the local mood was very black.
"People have been gathering to discuss this," he said.
"They will probably approach the Kandahar governor's office to discuss this with him.
"If he does not provide a satisfactory response, people may protest in the streets."
Samad Khan, a farmer who said he lost all 11 members of his family, told the Associated Press that villagers would demand the Americans hand over the shooter - a demand that will not be met - before deciding what action to take.
"This is an anti-human and anti-Islamic act," said Mr Khan.
"Nobody is allowed, in any religion in the world, to kill children and women."
Haji Dastgiri said that witnesses had described the US soldier as "in a bad mood" and said that he "appeared drunk".
Most described the shooting as the work of a single man, although some reports said more than one soldier was involved.
The Taliban, keen to exploit the propaganda coup the killings offered, claimed that "50 civilians [were] martyred by American terrorists".
It called the incident an "act of genocide".
The US embassy in Kabul tweeted a warning to people in Kandahar.
Last month, after US servicemen accidentally burned Korans, 30 Afghans were killed in demonstrations, six Isaf soldiers were killed by members of the Afghan security forces who turned on them in apparent revenge and two US military advisers were shot dead.
In 2010, in Kandahar province, a group of US soldiers murdered at least three Afghans and collected their body parts as trophies. Eleven soldiers were convicted on various charges.