KABUL, Afghanistan — The chief Afghan investigator in last month's slayings of 17 civilians says there's strong evidence that only one killer was involved, a view that puts him at odds with Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales has been charged with premeditated murder in the killings of eight adults and nine children from the villages of Najiban and Alkozai in the southern province of Kandahar, and six counts of attempted murder and assault. U.S. authorities have said they think that Bales acted alone, but the suspicion that more than one person was responsible for the shooting spree is widespread in Afghanistan.
Afghan army chief Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, whom Karzai sent to Kandahar to investigate the massacre, told McClatchy that two survivors he interviewed offered credible accounts that the killings were the act of a lone person.
"They told me the same thing," Karimi said. "They both said there was (only) one individual who came to their house."
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The number of shooters in the March 11 incident has been a matter of rampant speculation in Afghanistan even though U.S. officials have said all along that Bales, who's in custody at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., is the only suspect. The "multiple attackers" claim, echoed by Karzai, played off public outrage at the killings and may have bolstered the Afghan president's standing at home, but it's caused confusion among his putative U.S. allies.
The dueling accounts also have raised questions about the viability of the U.S. military investigation against Bales, which is expected to rely on the testimony of villagers who are the only eyewitnesses. U.S. officials have said that some villagers will be taken to the United States to testify at Bales' military trial.
A U.S. defense official who only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic said it was gratifying that Afghan investigators were confirming the U.S. account: "This is consistent with what we've believed from the beginning."
The official acknowledged that the shootings and subsequent rumors had damaged the United States' image in Afghanistan, but said such speculation was "commonplace, especially in small villages and especially about something as horrific as an event like this.
"The best way to move forward, to improve relationships in the area, is to take a strong lead role, to find whoever was responsible and hold that person accountable. That's what we're trying to do."
At a meeting at the presidential palace with relatives of the victims days after the massacre, Karzai openly questioned the U.S. account of a lone gunman. The president pointed to one relative and said: "In his family, in four rooms people were killed — children and women were killed — and then they were all brought together in one room and then set on fire. That, one man cannot do."
Karimi said he returned to Kabul to deliver his interim report but the villagers had spoken to Karzai before he did.
"And everybody said (to the president), 'Sir, it was not one person. ... How can one guy shoot people in four rooms, kill them, then lift them, bring them to one room and set them on fire?'"
Underscoring how the incident has become a political football, Karimi himself appeared to parrot Karzai's line in an interview with an Australian television program broadcast last week, in which he said, "I'm guessing — assumption — that (the killer was) helped by somebody. One person or two persons."
However, when McClatchy questioned him this week, Karimi said he believed that one person, especially a highly trained U.S. soldier, could have carried out the killings alone. Bales, a 38-year-old father of two, was a veteran of three previous tours in Iraq and had been deployed in Afghanistan since December.
Reporters who covered the killings said that most accounts of multiple attackers came from Afghan villagers who were relaying information secondhand. Those reports were given credence by Karzai, who hasn't backed away from his claim.
Karimi said that while there was strong evidence pointing to the "one shooter" theory, many questions about the killings remained unanswered. He added that U.S. authorities hadn't agreed to the Afghan investigators' requests to question Bales, which had contributed to the initial confusion.
"I just wanted to ask him: 'Why did you do it?'... so I had a proper report to the president," Karimi said. "But nobody helped, so I had to be ambiguous."
Karimi said a joint Afghan-U.S. team was continuing to investigate the killings and hoped to collect more forensic evidence.
"I hope it is proved that it is one guy," he said.
(Stephenson is a McClatchy special correspondent. Matthew Schofield contributed to this article from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more coverage visit McClatchy's Afghanistan and Pakistan page.