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Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is shown taking part in a training exercise in California. Bales is accused in an attack against Afghan villagers in which 16 civilians were gunned down. (Spc. Ryan Hallock, DIVDS/Associated Press)

A U.S. agent who investigated the massacre of 16 civilians in southern Afghanistan earlier this year recounted the livid reaction from local villagers and said Wednesday that it was weeks before American forces could visit the crime scenes.

By that time, bodies had been buried and some blood stains had been scraped from the walls, said Special Agent Matthew Hoffman of the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Command.

Other stains remained, on walls and floors. Investigators also recovered shell casings consistent with the weapons Staff Sgt. Robert Bales reportedly carried and a piece of fabric similar to the blanket prosecutors say he wore as a cape during the killing spree.

Hoffman testified during the third day of a preliminary hearing for Bales, who is accused of slipping away from his remote post at Camp Belambay in the middle of the night to commit the killings at two Afghan villages.

Hoffman described the enraged reaction of Afghan villagers. He said the situation was so volatile that U.S. investigators couldn't get to the crime scenes less than a mile from a remote base for three weeks. Even then, they were expecting to be ambushed.

Facing court martial

The hearing, which is expected to feature video testimony from Afghan villagers and soldiers on Friday and Saturday, will help determine whether Bales faces a court martial on 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder, along with charges of assault and wrongfully possessing and using steroids and alcohol while deployed. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

Hoffman told the hearing he arrived at Camp Belambay to investigate just hours after the March 11 massacre, but he and his colleagues were unable to reach the villages where the killings occurred. An angry crowd of local residents gathered outside the post, he said, and any time they could see an American soldier, they became enraged.

That day Afghan investigators did go out to the scenes, where they recovered some evidence and took photos that they turned over to U.S. authorities. But Hoffman and his colleagues didn't visit until April 2, and even then they feared attack.

"We were fully expecting to be attacked at any time," he said.

Bales, a 39-year-old Ohio native and father of two from Lake Tapps, Wash., leaned back in his chair at the defence table and showed no reaction as an army doctor gave clinical descriptions of treating some of the wounded villagers as they arrived at a nearby forward operating base.

One young girl had a large bullet hole in the top of her head, he said. A woman had wounds to her chest and genitals, but she and her relatives insisted that the male doctors not treat her. Prosecutors displayed photos of the victims being treated.

Hoffman also testified Wednesday that Bales tested positive for steroids three days after the killings.

Earlier in the day, a friend testified that he thought Bales seemed remorseful after being taken into custody. Defence witness 1st Sgt. Vernon Bigham testified by video from Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan.

Other soldiers have testified that Bales made a mid-massacre confession, asked for help bleaching his blood-stained clothing and deliberately destroyed his laptop computer. Bales' statements and actions show he knew what he was doing the night the civilians were slaughtered, prosecutors say.

Accused drank contraband whisky

A prosecutor, Lt. Col. Jay Morse, has said Bales spent the evening before the massacre at his remote outpost of Camp Belambay with two other soldiers, watching a movie about revenge killings, sharing contraband whisky from a plastic bottle and discussing an attack that cost one of their comrades his leg.

Within hours, a cape-wearing Bales slipped away from the post and embarked on a killing spree of his own, Morse said. He attacked one village then returned to Belambay, where he woke up a colleague and reported what he'd done, Morse said. The colleague testified that he didn't believe Bales and went back to sleep.

Bales headed out again, Morse said, and attacked the second village before returning once again in the pre-dawn darkness, bloody and incredulous that his comrades ordered him to surrender his weapons.

Bales has not entered a plea, and is not expected to testify. His attorneys, who did not give an opening statement, have not discussed the evidence, but say Bales has post-traumatic stress disorder and suffered a concussive head injury during a prior deployment to Iraq.

Bales has not participated in a medical evaluation known as a "sanity board," because his lawyers have objected to having him meet with army doctors outside their presence.