KABUL A U.S. Army sergeant was formally charged with 17 counts of murder on Friday for killing eight adults and nine children in a pre-dawn shooting rampage in southern Afghanistan that further eroded U.S.-Afghan relations already frayed by a decade of war.
Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, a decorated 38-year-old veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, also was charged with six counts each of assault and attempted murder for attacking two other adults and four children in the March 11 shooting spree, a U.S. armed forces statement said.
Premeditated murder is a capital offence under the U.S. military justice code, so Bales could face the death penalty if convicted. He would face a mandatory minimum sentence, if convicted, of life imprisonment with eligibility for parole, the military statement said.
Bales is accused of walking off his base under cover of darkness and opening fire at civilians in their homes in at least two different villages in Panjwai district in Kandahar province. Defense officials said four men, four women and nine children were killed. A man, a woman and four children were wounded or shot at.
"The charges allege that, on or about March 11, 2012, Staff Sergeant Bales did, with premeditation, murder seventeen Afghan civilians and assaulted and attempted to murder six other civilians," a U.S. armed forces statement said.
Initial reports from Afghanistan put the death toll at 16 people, including three women and nine children. It was not immediately clear where the extra count came from. Afghan officials were still counting 16 on Friday, and U.S. officials said none of the wounded had died.
A U.S. defenses official said the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan had never confirmed an official death toll and that evidence developed during the investigation led to the decision to bring 17 murder counts.
The killings seriously strained relations between Kabul and Washington, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanding that NATO forces leave Afghan villages and withdraw to major bases.
Karzai also demanded that foreign combat troops, most of whom are due to leave the country by the end of 2014, stop carrying out controversial night raids of Afghan homes, seen by NATO commanders as one of the most effective anti-insurgent tactics.
Taliban insurgents vowed to take revenge on NATO forces for the 17 killings, saying they had no faith in any court proceeding.
Bales is being held at Leavenworth military prison in Kansas but is assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment headquartered at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. That is where the next step in the judicial process is expected to take place.
Under U.S. military law, a Special Court-Martial Convening Authority at Lewis-McChord will decide whether to order an investigation of the charges at an Article 32 hearing, which is similar to a preliminary hearing in a civilian court.
An Article 32 investigation usually gives the accused a fairly detailed overview of the case against him, including testimony and evidence that will be presented, officials say.
Bales' attorney, John Henry Browne, suggested he might use the soldier's mental state as a defense.
"My first reaction to all of this is, prove it ... This is going to be a very difficult case for the government to prove in my opinion. There is no CSI (crime scene investigation) stuff. There's no DNA. There's no fingerprints," Browne told CBS' "This Morning" program before the charges were laid.
But he said: "The mental state eventually will be definitely an issue.
Bales, who had just begun serving his first tour of combat duty in Afghanistan, had suffered a traumatic brain injury during a vehicle rollover on one of his tours in Iraq and also lost part of a foot in a separate incident.
Browne has said Bales was told he wouldn't be sent back into combat after three tours in Iraq, but in December he was called up for a fourth tour in 10 years, this time to Afghanistan.
Lance Rosen, an attorney for Bales' wife, Kari, told ABC News that the staff sergeant called his wife immediately after the incident in Afghanistan and told her "something terrible" had happened.
Rosen said the couple spoke for about three minutes, evidently after Bales had surrendered to coalition forces, before the call was cut off.
(Additional reporting by David Alexander in Washington.; Editing by Mark Heinrich in London and Warren Strobel and Christopher Wilson in Washington)