Many fear a misstep by the U.S. military in handling the case could ignite a firestorm in Afghanistan that would shatter already tense relations between the two countries. The alliance appeared near the breaking point last month after the burning of Qurans in a garbage pit at a U.S. base sparked protests and retaliatory attacks that killed more than 30 people, including six U.S. soldiers.
In recent days the two nations made headway toward an agreement governing a long-term American presence here, but the massacre in Kandahar province on Sunday has called all such negotiations into question.
Afghan lawmakers have demanded that the soldier be publicly tried in Afghanistan to show that he was being brought to justice, and called on President Hamid Karzai to suspend all talks with the U.S. until that happens.
The U.S. staff sergeant, who has not been identified or charged, allegedly slipped out of his small base in southern Afghanistan before dawn, crept into three houses and shot men, women and children at close range then burned some of the bodies. By sunrise, there were 16 corpses.
The soldier was held by the U.S. military in Kandahar until last night, when he was flown out of Afghanistan to Kuwait "based on a legal recommendation," said Navy Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.
"We do not have appropriate detention facilities in Afghanistan," Kirby said, explaining that he was referring to a facility for a U.S. service member "in this kind of case."
The soldier was transported aboard a U.S. military aircraft to a "pretrial confinement facility" in another country, a U.S. military official said, without saying where. The official, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to release the information publicly, would not confirm if that meant an American military base or another type of facility. He said the Afghan government had been informed of the move.
The patience of Afghan investigators has already appeared to be wearing thin regarding the shootings in Panjwai district.
The soldier was caught on U.S. surveillance video that showed him walking up to his base, laying down his weapon and raising his arms in surrender, according to an Afghan official who viewed the footage.
The official said yesterday that there were also two to three hours of video footage that cover the time of the attack and that Afghan investigators are trying to get from the U.S. military. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
U.S. authorities showed their Afghan counterparts the video of the surrender to prove that only one perpetrator was involved in the shootings, the official said.
Some Afghan officials and residents in the villages that were attacked have insisted there was more than one shooter. If the disagreement persists, it could deepen the distrust between the two countries.