A U.S. Army staff sergeant was charged on Friday with 17 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder over a shooting spree in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, U.S. military forces in Afghanistan said.
Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, a 38-year-old veteran of four combat tours, is accused of walking off his base on March 11 under cover of darkness and opening fire at civilians in at least two different villages in Panjwai district.
"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. But a U.S. defense official said the death toll now included four men, four women and nine children. One man, one woman and four children were wounded.
It was not immediately clear where the extra count came from, as Afghan officials on Friday were still counting 16 dead.
The killings seriously strained relations between Kabul and Washington, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanding NATO forces leave Afghan villages and withdraw to major bases.
Karzai also demanded that foreign combat troops, most 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.
Afghanistan's Taliban vowed earlier on Friday to take revenge on NATO forces for the killing of 17 civilians, saying they had no faith in any court proceeding.
Bales is currently being held at the Leavenworth military prison in Kansas but is assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, where the next step in the judicial process will take place.
Bales' attorney, John Henry Browne, suggested on Friday 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.
Once the preferral of charges takes place, the next step in the judicial proceeding would be an Article 32 hearing, which is similar to a preliminary hearing in a civilian court.
The Article 32 hearing usually gives the accused a fairly detailed overview of the case against him, including testimony and evidence that will be presented, officials say.