KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — The U.S. paid $50,000 in compensation for each villager killed and $11,000 for each person wounded in a shooting rampage allegedly carried out by a rogue American soldier in southern Afghanistan, Afghan officials said Sunday.
The families were told that the money came from President Barack Obama. The unusually large payouts were the latest move by the White House to mend relations with the Afghan people after the killings threatened to shatter already tense relations.
Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is accused of sneaking off his base on March 11, then creeping into houses in two nearby villages and opening fire on families as they slept.
The killings came as tensions between the U.S. and Afghanistan were strained following the burning of Qurans at a U.S. base in February. That act — which U.S. officials have acknowledged was a mistake — sparked riots and attacks that killed more than 30 people, including six American soldiers.
There have been no violent protests following the March 11 shootings in Kandahar province's Panjwai district, but demands for justice on Afghan terms have been getting louder since Bales was flown out of the country to a U.S. military prison. Many Afghans in Kandahar have continued to argue that there must have been multiple gunmen and accused the U.S. government of using Bales as a scapegoat.
U.S. investigators believe the gunman returned to his base after the first attack and later slipped away to kill again.
That would seem to support the U.S. government's assertion that the shooter acted alone, since the killings would have been perpetrated over a longer period of time than assumed when Bales was detained outside his base in Kandahar province's Panjwai district.
But it also raises new questions about how the suspect could have carried out the pre-dawn attacks without drawing attention from any Americans on the base.
Bales has been charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder and other crimes and could face the death penalty if convicted.
The families of the dead received the money Saturday at the governor's office, said Kandahar provincial council member Agha Lalai. He and community elder Jan Agha confirmed the payout amounts.
Survivors previously had received smaller compensation payments from Afghan officials — $2,000 for each death and $1,000 for each person wounded.
Two U.S. officials confirmed that compensation had been paid but declined to discuss exact amounts, saying only that the payments reflected the devastating nature of the incident. The officials spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject.
A spokesman for NATO and U.S. forces, Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, said only that coalition members often make compensation payments, but they are usually kept private.
"As the settlement of claims is in most cases a sensitive topic for those who have suffered loss, it is usually a matter of agreement that the terms of the settlement remain confidential," Cummings said.
However, civilian death compensations are occasionally made public. In 2010, U.S. troops in Helmand province said they paid $1,500 to $2,000 if a civilian was killed in a military operation and $600 to $1,500 for a serious injury. The Panjwai shootings are different because they were not part of a sanctioned operation, but it is a distinction lost on many Afghans who see any civilian deaths as criminal.
The provided compensation figures would mean that at least $866,000 was paid out in all. Afghan officials and villagers have counted 16 dead — 12 in the village of Balandi and four in neighboring Alkozai — and six wounded. The U.S. military has charged Bales with 17 murders without explaining the discrepancy.
The 38-year-old soldier, who is from Lake Tapps, Wash., is accused of using his 9mm pistol and M-4 rifle to kill four men, four women, two boys and seven girls, then burning some of the bodies. The ages of the children were not disclosed in the charge sheet.
Bales is being held in a military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The mandatory minimum sentence if he is convicted is life imprisonment with the chance of parole. He could also receive the death penalty.
Families of the dead declined to comment on any payments by U.S. officials on Sunday, but some said previously that they were more concerned about seeing the perpetrator punished than money.
Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban and remains a dangerous area despite several offensives.
In the latest violence, a bomb struck a joint NATO-Afghan foot patrol in Kandahar's Arghandab district late Saturday, killing nine Afghans and one international service member, according to Shah Mohammad, the district administrator.
Arghandab is a farming region just outside Kandahar city that has long provided refuge for Taliban insurgents. It was one of a number of communities around Kandahar city that were targeted in a 2010 sweep to oust the insurgency from the area.
The Afghan dead included one soldier, three police officers, four members of the Afghan "local police" — a government-sponsored militia force — and one translator, Mohammad said.
NATO reported earlier Sunday that one of its service members was killed Saturday in a bomb attack in southern Afghanistan but did not provide additional details. It was not clear if this referred to the same incident, as NATO usually waits for individual coalition nations to confirm the details of deaths of their troops.