KABUL, Afghanistan -- The Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier accused of shooting 16 Afghan villagers in a pre-dawn killing spree was flown out of Afghanistan on Wednesday evening to Kuwait, the U.S. military said.
The soldier was taken out of Afghanistan based on a legal recommendation, said Navy Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.
We do not have appropriate detention facilities in Afghanistan, he said, explaining that he was referring to a facility for a U.S. service member in this kind of case.
The soldier was taken 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.
Kirby said the move did not necessarily mean the trial would be held outside Afghanistan, but the other military official said legal proceedings would continue elsewhere. The soldier has not yet been charged.
Afghan lawmakers had demanded that the soldier be publicly tried in Afghanistan to show that he was being brought to justice, calling on President Hamid Karzai to suspend all talks with the U.S. about an long-term military presence here until that happens.
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.
The alliance between Afghanistan and the U.S. military already appeared near the breaking point last month when 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 countries made headway toward an agreement governing a long-term American presence in the country, but the shootings in Kandahar province on Sunday have called all such negotiations into question.
Soldier seen on video
An Afghan official said Tuesday the soldier was caught on surveillance video that showed him walking up to his base, laying down his weapon and raising his arms in surrender. The official said U.S. authorities showed their Afghan counterparts the video to prove that only one perpetrator was involved in the shootings on Sunday, which have further strained already shaky relations between the two countries. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said nine of the dead were children.
Any major discrepancy between the official Afghan and U.S. accounts of the events on Sunday is likely to deepen the distrust.
One member of an Afghan government delegation investigating the killings said Wednesday that the group has concluded the shooting spree was carried out by more than one soldier. Parliament member Sayeed Ishaq Gilani said the delegation had heard from villagers who said they saw more than 15 troops at the scene.
But it is unclear whether the soldiers the villagers saw were part of a search party that left the base to look for the U.S. soldier who was missing. The delegation is slated to formally release the results of its investigation later Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the delegation visited the two villages in southern Kandahar province where the shootings took place. Two villagers who lost relatives insisted that at least two soldiers took part in the shootings.
U.S. military officials have so far insisted that only one soldier was involved.
We are still receiving, reviewing and investigating all leads in connection with this terrible incident, but at this time everything still points to one shooter, said Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.
The surveillance video, taken from an overhead blimp that films the area around the base, shows a soldier in a U.S. uniform approaching the south gate of the base with a traditional Afghan shawl hiding the weapon in his hand, the Afghan official said. He then removes the shawl as he lays his weapon on the ground and raises his arms in surrender.
The official, who requested anonymity because he was discussing a private briefing, said that there were about two to three hours of footage covering the time of the attack but the U.S. military had only provided the video of the surrender. The Afghan delegation in Kandahar is asking for the U.S. to provide the full footage, the official said.
The killings have stirred more anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan, but the reaction has not been as intense the wave of deadly riots that followed the burning of Qurans at a U.S. base last month. That set off nearly a week of violent demonstrations and attacks left more than 30 dead, including six U.S. soldiers killed apparent reprisal attacks.
Still the two events together have pushed the Afghan-U.S. relationship to crisis level.
The Taliban has vowed revenge for the shootings.
A bomb hidden in a motorcycle exploded Wednesday about 600 meters (yards) from where the Afghan government delegation investigating the shootings was meeting in the southern city of Kandahar, said a spokesman for the provincial governor, Zalmai Ayubi.
The attack killed one Afghan intelligence official and wounded two. A civilian was also wounded. The bomb went off about 300 meters from the Afghan intelligence headquarters in Kandahar, said Ayubi.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Taliban insurgents opened fire on the Afghan delegation Tuesday while they were visiting the villages that were attacked. One Afghan army soldier was killed and two other army personnel were wounded.
Afghan lawmakers have demanded that the alleged shooter, identified by U.S. officials as a staff sergeant, face a public trial inside Afghanistan. They have called on Karzai to suspend any negotiations with the U.S. on a long-term military pact until this happens.
No final decision has been made yet on the location of the trial, said Col. Gary Kolb, a U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan.
Kolb said that the U.S. has held courts-martial in Afghanistan before, and could try the alleged shooter in the country.
They'll take a look at all the circumstances and determine if they do it here or if it goes back to the States.
The U.S. military is holding the soldier in Kandahar. Military officials say he slipped off a U.S. base before dawn Sunday, walked to the villages, barged into their homes and opened fire. Some of the corpses were burned. Eleven were from one family. Five people were wounded.
The military held a hearing for the detained soldier on Tuesday and found there was probable cause to continue holding him. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has said he could face capital punishment.
Panetta arrived in Afghanistan on Wednesday on a visit that was planned months before the killings. But the trip propels Panetta into the center of escalating anti-American anger and sets the stage for some difficult discussions with Afghan leaders.
Panetta and other U.S. officials say the shooting spree should not derail the U.S. and NATO strategy of a gradual withdrawal of troops by the end of 2014. But it has further soured relations with war-weary Afghans, jeopardizing the U.S. strategy of working closely with Afghan forces so they can take over their country's security.
Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak called the killings deplorable but said the country must remember the bigger issues at stake, likely a reference to the fear that the Taliban could capitalize on a precipitous foreign withdrawal.
I mean the stakes are much higher than this incident, which we have all have condemned, and I think we are assured that the U.S. authority will take appropriate action, said Wardak in a news conference with German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere in Kabul.
President Barack Obama has pledged a thorough investigation, saying the U.S. was taking the case as seriously as if it was our own citizens, and our children, who were murdered.
Protesters in the east called for the death of the accused U.S. soldier Tuesday and burned an effigy of Obama as well as a cross, which they used as a symbol of people who -- like many Americans -- are Christians.
It was the first significant protest since the killings.
Military commanders have yet to release their final investigation on the Quran burnings, which U.S. officials say was a mistake. Five U.S. service members could face disciplinary action in connection with the incident.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday expressed deep sadness at the shocking incident and said the U.N. expects that an investigation will rapidly establish the facts, that those responsible will be held accountable, and that the public will be kept informed.
Also Wednesday, eight civilians were killed in southern Helmand province's Marjah district when a roadside bomb struck their vehicle, the provincial governor's office said.