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US soldier to be charged with 17 Afghan murders

Bales could face death penalty if convicted -Leon Panetta:

US: A US soldier will be charged with 17 counts of murder stemming from the killings of civilians in a shooting rampage in southern Afghanistan, a US official said Thursday.

The official, confirming the murder charges on condition of anonymity, also said Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales would be charged with six counts of assault and attempted murder.

The massacre is likely the deadliest war crime of the ten-year-old conflict by a NATO soldier and has further strained already difficult relations between the United States and Afghanistan.

Bales, 38, allegedly walked out of his base in the southern province of Kandahar under cover of darkness March 11 and killed 17 people in two nearby villages, including women and children. He then allegedly burned some of their bodies, returned to his base and surrendered.

The charges raise by one the number of deaths reported immediately after the atrocity, which have deepened a sense of crisis in the NATO-led mission and renewed questions about the effect of protracted ground wars on America's stretched force.

The killings came at an already tense time for US-Afghan ties after the inadvertent burning of Korans by American soldiers triggered deadly anti-US protests, “insider” attacks on NATO troops by Afghan forces and an earlier video that showed US Marines urinating on the bloodied corpses of Taliban militants.

US officials have pledged to hold the gunman to account, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said Bales could face the death penalty if convicted. The soldier's motives remain unknown and investigators are examining if alcohol played a role in the killings.

Initially transferred to a US base in Kuwait, Bales is now at the Fort Leavenworth military prison in Kansas, where he is being held in a solitary cell.

The charges are due to be officially announced Friday, sources close to the investigation said.Under the US military justice system, prosecutors draft charges to be filed against an accused soldier, then present them to his unit commander, who must then decide whether there is enough evidence to believe a crime was committed.Bales is then due to appear for an Article 32 preliminary hearing at a still unknown date, when authorities will decide whether to go ahead with a court-martial.

The soldier's lawyer, John Henry Browne, visited his client for the first time on Monday and Tuesday and told reporters that Bales suffered from amnesia. AFP

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