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Massacre soldier to face victims

The US soldier who killed 16 innocent Afghan villagers in two unprovoked attacks will be made to face survivors and relatives of the dead as his sentencing hearing opens.

Robert Bales pleaded guilty in June to avoid capital punishment for killing the civilians, mostly women and children, on March 11, 2012. Jurors in the US now have to decide if his life sentence should have a chance of parole.

The army has flown nine villagers from Kandahar Province to give evidence. Several appeared by video link from Afghanistan last year, including a young girl who described hiding behind her father as he was shot dead. Boys told of begging the soldier to spare them, yelling: "We are children! We are children!" A man told of being shot in the neck at arm's length.

The villagers have not encountered Bales since the attack, nor have they heard him apologise. Bales could not explain to a judge why he committed the killings. "There's not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did," he said.

He did not say he was sorry, but his lawyers hinted an apology might come at sentencing.

Prosecutors question whether was remorseful. They asked a judge for permission to play a recording of a phone call of Bales laughing with his wife as they review the charges against him.

Bales, on his fourth combat deployment, had been drinking and watching a movie with other soldiers at his remote post in Kandahar Province when he slipped away. Bales said he had also been taking steroids and Valium.

Armed with a 9 mm pistol and an M-4 rifle, he attacked a village called Alkozai, then returned and woke up a fellow soldier to tell him about it. The soldier did not believe him and went back to sleep. Bales left again to attack a second village known as Najiban.

The massacre prompted such angry protests that the US temporarily halted combat operations in Afghanistan, and it was three weeks before Army investigators could reach the crime scene.

Bales' lawyers have said they plan to present evidence that could warrant leniency, including his previous deployments and what they describe as his history of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

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