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Afghans protest rampage

About 1,000 Afghans took to the streets in a southern town on Thursday to protest the killing of 16 civilians in a murderous rampage by a US soldier, police said. Shouting anti-American slogans the demonstrators poured into the main town of Qalat in Zabul province neighbouring Kandahar, where the shooting spree took place on Sunday, regional police spokesman Hekmatullah Kochai told AFP.

The protest came with US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta due to hold talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul aimed at calming troubled ties. The protesters, carrying white flags, demanded a public trial for the shooter, identified as a 38-year-old US army sergeant. The protest is the second in Afghanistan since the killings in three war-scarred villages in Kandahar province’s Panjwayi district last Sunday.

Meanwhile, the accused has been flown out of Afghanistan to Kuwait, even as many Afghans called for him to face justice in their country. Afghan government officials did not immediately respond to calls for comment about the late-night announcement Wednesday. The U.S. military said the transfer did not preclude the possibility of trying the case in Afghanistan, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the soldier could receive capital punishment if convicted.

The soldier was held by the U.S. military in Kandahar until Wednesday evening, when he was flown out of Afghanistan to Kuwait, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. 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 between the two countries.

The alliance appeared near 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 nations made headway toward an agreement governing a long-term American presence here, but the massacre in Kandahar province on Sunday has called all such negotiations into question.

Afghan lawmakers have 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. until that happens. The U.S. staff sergeant, who has not been named or charged, allegedly slipped out of his small base in southern Afghanistan before dawn, crept into three houses and shot men, women and children at close range then burned some of the bodies. By sunrise, there were 16 corpses.

The suspect was taken into custody shortly afterward and at some point taken to Kandahar. “We do not have appropriate detention facilities in Afghanistan,” Navy Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday. He said that meant a facility for a U.S. service member “in this kind of case.”

The U.S. military has detention facilities in Kuwait that have been used for other troops. Army PFC Bradley Manning was detained in Kuwait after he was taken into custody in Baghdad in 2010 for allegedly leaking government documents in the WikiLeaks case. Kirby said the transfer did not necessarily mean the trial would be held outside Afghanistan. U.S. officials had previously said it would be technically possible to hold proceedings in Afghanistan, noting other court-martial trials held here.

The decision to remove the soldier from the country may complicate the prosecution, said Michael Waddington, an American military defense lawyer who represented a ringleader of the 2010 thrill killings of three Afghan civilians by soldiers from the same Washington state base as the accused staff sergeant.

The prosecutors won’t be able to use statements from Afghan witnesses unless the defense is able to cross-examine them, he said. Waddington said the decision to remove the suspect was likely a security call. “His presence in the country would put himself and other service members in jeopardy,” Waddington said.

But the patience of Afghan investigators has already appeared to be wearing thin regarding the shootings in Panjwai district. The soldier was caught on U.S. surveillance video that showed him walking up to his base, laying down his weapon and raising his arms in surrender, according to an Afghan official who viewed the footage.

The official said Wednesday there were also two to three hours of video footage covering the time of the attack that Afghan investigators are trying to get from the U.S. military. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. U.S. authorities showed their Afghan counterparts the video of the surrender to prove that only one perpetrator was involved in the shootings, the official said.

Some Afghan officials and residents in the villages that were attacked have insisted there was more than one shooter. If the disagreement persists, it could deepen the distrust between the two countries. Panetta, in a series of meetings with troops and Afghan leaders Wednesday, said the U.S. must never lose sight of its mission in the war, despite recent violence including what appeared to be an attempted attack near the runway of a military base where he was about to land.

It wasn’t clear whether it was an attempt to attack the defense chief, whose travel to southern Afghanistan was not made public before he arrived. Panetta was informed of the incident after landing. “We will not allow individual incidents to undermine our resolve to that mission,” he told about 200 Marines at Camp Leatherneck. “We will be tested we will be challenged, we’ll be challenged by our enemy, we’ll be challenged by ourselves, we’ll be challenged by the hell of war itself. But none of that, none of that, must ever deter us from the mission that we must achieve.”

According the Pentagon spokesman, an Afghan stole a vehicle at a British airfield in southern Afghanistan and drove it onto a runway, crashing into a ditch about the same time that Leon Panetta’s aircraft was landing. The pickup truck drove at high speed onto the ramp where Panetta’s plane was intended to stop, Kirby said. No one in Panetta’s party was injured. SAPA

The US soldier accused of killing 16 Afghans could be executed if convicted, the Pentagon chief said, as President Barack Obama warned a war-weary public against a rushed exit from Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters aboard his plane en route to Kyrgyzstan that the shooting suspect would be brought to justice under the US military legal code, which allows for the death penalty in some cases.

The US army sergeant, who was on his first tour of duty in Afghanistan after serving three tours in Iraq, left his base in Kandahar province before dawn Sunday and went on a murderous rampage, Afghan and US officials say. He is accused of breaking into village homes and opening fire, killing 16 people including women and children, in an incident that has imperilled Afghan-US relations anew after the burning of Korans at a US military base.

“Then at some point after that (he) came back to the forward operating base and basically turned himself in,” Panetta said late Monday. “Told individuals what happened.” The Pentagon chief was asked if the suspect could be sentenced to death. “My understanding is in these instances that could be a consideration,” he said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has described the shootings as “unforgivable,” and the Afghan parliament declared that “people are running out of patience” over the behavior of the 130,000 US-led NATO troops deployed in the country. The Taliban, leading a 10-year insurgency against the foreign troops and Karzai’s government, threatened to take revenge against “sick-minded American savages.”

The parliament on Monday demanded that US officials “punish the culprits and try them in a public trial before the people of Afghanistan,” then closed for the day in protest. But the Pentagon made clear that it would prosecute the soldier. He has not been named, but officials said he is in his 30s and that the investigation will look into whether he may have been suffering from mental trauma.

The massacre is the latest serious test of the US-Afghan alliance as the two countries pursue difficult talks on securing a strategic pact to govern their partnership once foreign combat troops leave Afghanistan in 2014. One major sticking point is the Karzai government’s refusal so far to grant legal immunity to US troops — the same issue that scuppered a US strategic pact with Iraq.

In Washington, Obama warned the US public against “a rush for the exits” from Afghanistan, after a new poll at the weekend said most Americans believe the war in Afghanistan is not worth the cost and want an early pullout. “It’s important for us to make sure that we get out in a responsible way, so that we don’t end up having to go back in,” Obama said in an interview with CBS station KDKA in Pittsburgh.

“But what we don’t want to do, is to do it in a way that is just a rush for the exits,” he said, stressing the need for an orderly withdrawal to get US personnel and equipment out. Obama added: “We have got to make sure that the Afghans can protect their borders to prevent Al-Qaeda coming back.” But in a separate interview with Denver CBS affiliate KCNC, Obama said it was “important for us just to make sure that we are not … in Afghanistan longer than we need to be.”

The commander of US-led forces in Afghanistan, US General John Allen, told CNN the killings appeared to have been an “isolated act.” An Afghan soldier detected the absence of the US sergeant and immediately reported it, Allen said. “We put together a search party right away and it was as that search party was forming that we began to have indications of the outcome of his departure.”

The weekend incident is the latest in a series of actions by troops that has provoked outrage in Afghanistan, and comes weeks after the burning of the Korans sparked riots that killed 40 people and plunged ties to an all-time low. Braced for the worst, the US embassy urged its citizens in Afghanistan to take extra precautions. But there were no reports of protests by late Monday, and Kandahar community leaders appealed against any violence.

Karzai spoke by telephone with relatives of those killed, including Rafihullah, a 15-year-old boy wounded in the leg who told the president the soldier had torn the dresses of the women in the house and insulted them. “He came to my uncle’s home, he was running after women, he was tearing their dresses, insulting them,” Rafihullah said on an audiotape of the conversation heard by AFP. “He killed my uncle and killed our servant and killed my grandma, he shot dead my uncle’s son, his daughter,” the boy said. SAPA

UPDATE: An Afghan crashed a stolen truck on a British military base runway as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s plane was landing Wednesday for an unannounced two-day visit in Afghanistan, reports the New York Times. Panetta emerged from the plane unharmed, but the driver of the truck reportedly emerged from the wreckage ablaze.

The air field was at a Marine base in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, near Kandahar, where an unnamed U.S. army sergeant killed 16 civilians on Sunday. The Washington Post provides a graphic of the relative location here.

No explosives were found in the truck, and Pentagon officials couldn’t immediately confirm whether the man meant to attack Panetta.

The Times reports that as Panetta began to speak at Camp Leatherneck amid the heightened tension, American troops were abruptly asked to put their weapons outside the tent where the briefing was to take place. U.S. officials have since stated that that precaution had actually been requested Tuesday, and that the brisk request so soon after Panetta’s arrival was due to a miscommunication. American troops are normally allowed to keep their weapons on them, the Times notes.

In a separate visit in to a remote base in western Helmand, Panetta re-emphasized statements by President Obama by which the U.S. would keep to its timetable of withdrawing 23,000 American troops by the end of summer and the remaining 68,000 by the end of 2014, notes the Times.

Meanwhile, a USA Today/Gallup poll taken after the Kandahar shooting rampage shows that half of Americans back a faster pullout. “More than one in four of those surveyed say events in recent months, including attacks on coalition forces in the wake of the burning of Qurans at a U.S. military base, have persuaded them that the time has come for the troops to come home,” USA Today writes.

Wednesday, March 14: Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is in Afghanistan Wednesday for an unannounced two-day visit, days after a U.S. soldier reportedly killed 16 civilians in a weekend rampage.

Although, as the New York Times reports, the visit was planned months in advance, the timing has heightened the tension and importance of Panetta’s time in the country.

Speaking to Afghan officials, Panetta said that recent violence in the country does “not represent the Afghan people, the Afghan security forces, or U.S. and (coalition) forces—the vast majority of whom are trying to do the right thing,” the Associated Press reports.

According to the Times, Panetta is expected to speak to President Hamid Karzai in person about the killings during his visit. The Defense secretary has previously denounced the incident and vowed to bring the killer to justice (albeit not in an Afghan court).

Panetta also spoke to a group of about 200 marines Wednesday, who were abruptly told to remove their weapons from the tent in which they were gathered to hear the secretary speak, according to the Times. Normally, American troops are armed in Afghanistan during a visit like Panetta’s, but not Afghan troops. According to Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, the decision to remove the weapons was intended to create a consistent policy for everyone in the tent.

The U.S. presence in Afghanistan is contending with escalating anger from the country’s residents. The weekend’s killings follow an incident last month in which NATO soldiers burned Muslim holy books, sparking deadly protests in the country.

Tuesday, March 13, 3:11 p.m.: President Obama said Tuesday that an investigation into the weekend shooting spree that killed 16 Afghan civilians would be thorough and hold anyone involved “fully accountable,” the Associated Press reports.

Speaking at the White House before an unrelated event, the president addressed the situation that has dominated international news since Sunday, when a U.S. soldier allegedly went on a rampage that left nine children among the dead. Obama called the apparent massacre “outrageous and unacceptable.”

“The United States takes this as seriously as if it was our own citizens, and our children, who were murdered,” the president said. “We’re heartbroken over the loss of innocent life.”

Pentagon officials have rebuffed calls from Afghan leaders for a public trial for the Army sergeant accused of the killings, maintaining that the U.S. government would be responsible for prosecuting the wayward soldier. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has suggested that the death penalty could be an option.

Elsewhere in Slate: Fred Kaplan takes a look at the U.S. military’s current role in Afghanistan, and makes the case that an American presence can no longer serve any purpose. Read that here.

Tuesday, March 13: U.S. officials are considering an accelerated withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in the wake of an alleged weekend rampage by an American Army sergeant that killed 16 civilians, the New York Times reports.

President Obama stressed Monday that there won’t be a “rush for the exits” following the incident but administration officials tell the paper that talks—which they say had begun before the weekend killings—to increase the drawdown there by at least an additional 20,000 troops by 2013 have heated up in recent days, as tensions continue to worsen since U.S. personnel mistakenly burned several Qurans last month.

According to the Times, any plans for an accelerated withdrawal would face strong opposition from military leaders, who favor keeping most of the remaining American troops in the country until 2014, when the NATO mission there is slated to end.

Meanwhile, Taliban militants attacked an Afghan government delegation on Tuesday that was visiting villages in the southern Kandahar province where the weekend killings took place, the Associated Press reports. The delegation included two of President Hamid Karzai’s brothers.

An Afghan soldier serving as a bodyguard for the delegation was killed and another soldier and a military prosecutor were wounded, according to the Kandahar police chief.

The Taliban had vowed revenge on Monday after an American soldier reportedly opened fire on villagers in southern Afghanistan, killing nine children and seven other civilians.

Monday, March 12, 4:55 p.m.: The Pentagon on Monday rejected calls by the Afghan government for the U.S. Army sergeant accused of killing 16 civilians to face a public trial in Afghanistan, the AFP reports.

A military spokesman said that the United States will be responsible for prosecuting the wayward soldier, emphasizing that investigations and prosecutions are already normally handed over to U.S. authorities pursuant to “agreements in place with the government of Afghanistan.”

The news comes amid growing tension over the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, unrest that was fueled in recent weeks by other diplomatic fiascoes like last month’s Quran burnings. Many observers say that current Afghan-American relations are at their lowest since the U.S. invasion took place 10 years ago.

Politico, meanwhile, reports that Hillary Clinton echoed other U.S. officials in offering her condolences to the people of Afghanistan on Monday. “This is not who we are, and the United States is committed to seeing that those responsible are held accountable,” the secretary of state said in a speech at the U.N.

Monday, March 12: As the U.S. apologizes for an American soldier’s deadly attacks on two villages in Afghanistan over the weekend, the Taliban on Monday vowed revenge.

As NPR reports, both U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and President Obama have called Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai to apologize for the attacks on Sunday, which, despite earlier reports, seem to be the work of a single U.S. Army sergeant. Panetta promised to “bring those responsible to justice.” Obama echoed the defense secretary’s remarks, offering his condolences to the families of the dead, and to the people of Afghanistan.

The Taliban, which almost immediately condemned the attacks as “genocide,” promised in a statement on their website to avenge the deaths of Afghanistan villagers at the hands of “sick-minded American savages.” As the Associated Press reports, the Taliban have claimed responsibility for several attacks following the burning of several Muslim holy books by NATO soldiers last month.

On Sunday, a U.S. Army sergeant killed 16 villagers (nine of whom were children) in southern Afghanistan. According to the New York Times, village residents say that the soldier went door-to-door, then broke into three homes, killing most of those inside. He then attempted to burn the bodies before surrendering at his base more than one mile away.

Sunday, March 11: A U.S. service member left his southern Afghanistan base before dawn Sunday and seems to have indiscriminately opened fire on houses in two nearby villages, killing 16. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said nine children and three women were among the dead and called the attack in Panjwayi district an “assassination” reports the Associated Press. One soldier has been detained over the shooting, and the BBC hears word he is a staff sergeant.

Even though several reports talk of a lone U.S. soldier, Reuters hears from Afghan officials that the attack was actually carried out by a group of Western forces. Witnesses claim a group of American soldiers appeared drunk and were laughing as they went on a shooting spree, later burning the bodies.

The incident takes place following weeks of rioting sparked last month by news that Qurans were burned at a U.S. base, killing some 30 people. Days earlier, though, there were signs that relations were finally starting to improve as Washington and Kabul officials managed to make progress on a long-delayed strategic partnership deal, writes the New York Times.

Now NATO officials are bracing themselves for the fallout of what could very well be “the worst atrocity of the 10-year war to be deliberately carried out by a single member of the Western military,” as the Los Angeles Times puts it. The Taliban quickly released a statement saying that 50 civilians had been killed as part of a “genocide” that was the result of a U.S. night raid.

“This is a deeply regrettable incident and we extend our thoughts and concerns to the families involved,” the U.S. military said in a statement, according to the Washington Post.

Reuters talks to an Afghan official who says the soldier appears to have entered three homes, killing 11 people in the first one. Panjawi is around 22 miles from the provincial capital, Kandahar City.

The shooting Sunday was not the first time U.S. soldiers have been accused of killing Afghans in Kandahar province for no reason, notes the Wall Street Journal. Four U.S. Army soldiers were convicted last year of murdering Afghans and collecting body parts for trophies.

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