Stalking from home to home, an Army sergeant from Joint Base Lewis-McChord methodically killed at least 16 civilians — nine of them children — in a rural stretch of southern Afghanistan early Sunday, according to Afghan and U.S. officials, igniting fears of a new wave of anti-American hostility.

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PANJWAI, Afghanistan — Stalking from home to home, an Army sergeant from Joint Base Lewis-McChord methodically killed at least 16 civilians — nine of them children — in a rural stretch of southern Afghanistan early Sunday, igniting fears of a new wave of anti-American hostility, Afghan and U.S. officials said.

Residents of two villages in the Panjwai District of Kandahar province described a terrifying string of attacks in which the soldier, who had walked more than a mile from his base, tried door after door, eventually breaking in to kill within three separate houses. At the first, the gunman gathered 11 bodies, including those of four girls younger than 6, and set fire to them, villagers said.

The shootings, by far the worst known atrocity of the 10-year war to be deliberately carried out by a single Western soldier, represented a stunning new setback to U.S.-Afghan relations, most recently shaken by last month’s Quran burnings and an earlier video purportedly showing U.S. Marines urinating on dead Taliban extremists.

Officials described a growing sense of concern over the cascading series of missteps and offenses that has cast doubt on the ability of NATO personnel to carry out their mission and has left troops and trainers increasingly vulnerable to violence by Afghans seeking revenge.

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned Sunday’s attack, calling it an “inhuman and intentional act” and demanding justice.

Both President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called Karzai, expressing condolences and promising thorough investigations. “This incident is tragic and shocking, and does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan,” Obama said in a statement.

U.S. officials in Kabul were scrambling to understand what had happened. They appealed for calm, at a moment when the United States and Afghanistan are in tense negotiations on the terms of the long-term U.S. presence in the country.

U.S. officials shed no light on the possible motive of the staff sergeant, who was taken into custody shortly after the killings. However, military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Los Angeles Times it was believed the soldier had suffered a mental breakdown.

“It appears he walked off post and later returned and turned himself in,” said Lt. Cmdr. James Williams, a military spokesman. The NATO force said the assailant acknowledged he had inflicted an unspecified number of casualties during the shootings, which began about 3 a.m.

The soldier’s name has not been released, but a U.S. official told ABC News he is a 38-year-old staff sergeant who is married with two children and had served three tours in Iraq. This was his first tour in Afghanistan, where he has been since early December, the official said.

Separately, a senior U.S. military official confirmed that the sergeant was attached to a unit based at Lewis-McChord, located near Tacoma, and that he had been part of what is called a village-stabilization operation in Afghanistan, in which teams of Green Berets, supported by other soldiers, try to develop close ties with village elders, organize local police units and track down Taliban leaders. The official said the sergeant was not a Green Beret himself.

In Panjwai, a reporter for The New York Times who inspected bodies that had been taken to the nearby U.S. military base Sunday counted 16 dead and saw burns on some of the bodies.

“All the family members were killed, the dead put in a room, and blankets were put over the corpses and they were burned,” said a neighbor who rushed to one house after the soldier had left. “We put out the fire.”

The villagers brought some of the burned blankets on motorbikes to the base, Camp Belambay, in Kandahar. Soon, more than 300 people had gathered to protest.

At least five other Afghans were wounded in the attacks, officials said, some of them seriously. NATO said several were being treated at a military hospital.

In a measure of the mounting levels of mistrust between Afghans and the coalition, many Afghans, including lawmakers and other officials, said they believed the attack had been planned.They were incredulous that one U.S. soldier could have carried it out without help.

Abdul Hadi, 40, said he was at home when the soldier broke down the door.

“My father went out to find out what was happening, and he was killed,” he said. “I was trying to go out and find out about the shooting but someone told me not to move, and I was covered by the women in my family in my room, so that is why I survived.”

Hadi said more than one soldier was involved in the attack, and at least five other villagers described seeing a number of soldiers, along with a helicopter and flares. But that claim was unconfirmed — other Afghan residents described seeing only one shooter — and it was unclear whether extra troops had been sent to the village after the attack to catch the suspect.

Grieving residents tried to make sense of why they were targeted.

“No Taliban were here. No gunbattle was going on,” cried out one woman, who said four people were killed in the village of Alokzai, all members of her family.

The other 12 dead were from Balandi village, said Samad Khan, a farmer who lost all 11 members of his family.

One woman opened a blanket to reveal the body of her 2-year-old child.

“Was this child Taliban? There is no Taliban here,” said Gul Bushra. The Americans “are always threatening us with dogs and helicopters during night raids.”

The Taliban was quick to weigh in on the incident, characterizing it as a “massacre” committed during the course of a night raid by U.S. and Afghan forces.

Provincial officials sent an investigative team to the villages, and the U.S. military launched its own probe.

Panjwai, southwest of Kandahar city, has been one of the most challenging battlegrounds for NATO forces. The area was the cradle of the Taliban movement in the early 1990s, and the group has fought hard to maintain control.

Wresting Kandahar province from Taliban control was one of the chief objectives of Obama’s 2009 troop increase. U.S. military officials say they have been largely successful in restoring a semblance of Afghan government control in areas once controlled by the Taliban. But as the foreign troop footprint starts to shrink in the south, many Afghans fear the Taliban will regain its lost ground.

About 90,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, a number that is to fall to about 68,000 this year. At its peak, the U.S. force numbered more than 100,000.

Compiled from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press reports.

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