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Apologies but no explanation for killings

Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington: Staff Sergeant Robert Bales has offered a tearful apology for gunning down 16 unarmed Afghan civilians inside their homes, but said he still could not explain why he had carried out one of the worst US war crimes in years.

''What I did is an act of cowardice,'' he said, choking up as he sat on the witness stand. ''I'm truly, truly sorry for those people whose family members I've taken away.''

The unsworn statement from Bales, 40, came on the third day of a hearing to determine whether he should ever be eligible for parole for the massacre in March last year. In June, he pleaded guilty to slipping away from his combat base in southern Afghanistan and invading the mud-walled compounds where dozens of Afghan civilians slept. He beat and kicked them, chased them from room to room, opened fire on them and set several of their bodies ablaze.

Two days of wrenching testimony from survivors and witnesses painted indelible images of the brutality of Bales' crimes, and their toll on the victims.

Bearded Afghan men, who travelled more than 11,000 kilometres to testify, spoke of how nearly every member of their families had been taken. A skinny boy told how he cried after seeing his sister shot. A doctor described how a young girl named Zardana could no longer dress herself or go to the bathroom without help.

On Thursday, Bales said he understood the terrible cost of what he had done.


''If I could bring their family members back, I would in a heartbeat,'' he said. ''I can't comprehend their loss. I think about it every time I look at my kids. I know I murdered their family. I took that away from them.''

He spoke about how he had disgraced his family. And with particular emotion, he apologised for shaming the Army and staining the reputation of the ''really good guys, some heroes'' who had served alongside him during three deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan.

But his apology - the first time he has publicly expressed sorrow - came without an explanation. ''I don't know why,'' he said.

Lawyers for Bales offered no clues, either. The defence has suggested that he was a broken man who suffered from post-traumatic stress and a traumatic brain injury, a good soldier who had snapped under the strain of four wartime deployments. But they presented no such evidence to the six-person jury weighing whether Bales deserves a life sentence with no possibility of parole, or whether he should have a chance at freedom after serving about 20 years in prison.

The few witnesses to speak on Bales' behalf recalled him as a loving son and neighbour, a devoted father and a brave soldier.

On Thursday, Bales said that after returning from his tours in Iraq, he slid deeper into a pit of anger, weakness and fear. He said he had not been eager to return to combat for a fourth deployment.

In Afghanistan, he began taking steroids and at times lost his temper, once screaming at another soldier and once punching and kneeing an Afghan driver who accidentally struck him with a box of supplies.

In his testimony, Bales said he had seen threats everywhere, spotting phantom bombs and Taliban where other soldiers saw nothing. The day before the shooting, Bales spent eight hours hacking away at a fallen tree that Taliban fighters had used as a landmark for placing roadside bombs.

''I couldn't let it go,'' he said.

Throughout his statement, he acknowledged that his apologies would not bring back anyone's wife, children or parents.

''Sorry just isn't good enough,'' he said.

New York Times