By Phil Stewart
KABUL (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told troops in Afghanistan on Wednesday that the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by an American soldier must not deter them from their mission to secure the country ahead of a 2014 NATO withdrawal deadline.
Despite calls from local residents for him to be tried in Afghanistan, the U.S. staff sergeant who killed the villagers on Sunday has been flown out of Afghanistan, the Pentagon said.
In Washington, President Barack Obama said after meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron he did not anticipate any "sudden" change in U.S. plans for the pace of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.
Panetta arrived amid heightened tensions over the massacre. At around the time he landed at a British airbase, an Afghan man drove a stolen pickup truck at high speed onto a runway and emerged from the vehicle in a blaze, the Pentagon said.
Pentagon spokesman George Little, travelling with Panetta, denied reports in Afghan media that the vehicle caught fire or exploded. No explosives were found on the man or in the truck.
"The Secretary, we believe, was never in danger," Little said, adding that the driver's motives were unclear and he was being treated for burns. A coalition member was injured when he was pulled from the vehicle as it was stolen, the Pentagon said.
In an earlier incident, a motorcycle bomb blast in Kandahar city killed an Afghan intelligence soldier and wounded two others, as well as a civilian.
A roadside bomb also killed eight civilians in southern Helmand province, where Panetta began a two-day visit by meeting with U.S. and coalition forces at two bases, Afghan provincial officials said.
"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," Panetta told soldiers at Camp Leatherneck, the main U.S. Marine base in the volatile area.
Panetta's trip had been scheduled before Sunday's shootings in two Kandahar villages, but gained added urgency as political pressure mounted on Afghan and U.S. officials over the unpopular war, now in its 11th year.
Obama called the shooting of 16 Afghans "tragic" at a news briefing with Cameron, but emphasized that both nations remained committed to completing the Afghan mission "responsibly."
"There will be a robust coalition presence inside of Afghanistan during this fighting season to make sure that the Taliban understand that they're not going to be able to regain momentum," Obama said in the White House Rose Garden.
NATO leaders gathering in Obama's home city of Chicago on May 20-21 will decide the "next phase" of the planned transition to Afghan forces taking the lead for security in 2014, he said.
The United States and Britain have the largest contingents of foreign troops in Afghanistan, but domestic support for the more than 10-year-old war has flagged, posing a challenge to Obama as he campaigns for reelection on November 6.
Obama acknowledged that people wanted the war over, but argued they still back the reason the United States invaded in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. cities, plotted by al Qaeda militants from the sanctuary of Afghanistan.
MAJORITY WANT TROOPS HOME
In a Reuters/Ipsos poll, 40 percent of Americans said the shooting spree, in which nine children and three women were among those killed, had weakened their support for the war.
Sixty-one percent of Americans surveyed in the March 12-13 poll said remaining U.S. troops should be brought home immediately, down slightly from the 66 percent with that opinion in a similar March poll. Seventeen percent disagreed.
U.S. soldiers are the likely targets of any backlash over the killings. The Afghan Taliban threatened to retaliate by beheading U.S. personnel, while insurgents also attacked investigating Afghan officials on Tuesday.
Afghans investigating the incident had been shown video of the U.S. soldier taken from a security camera mounted on a blimp above his base, an Afghan security official who could not be identified told Reuters.
The footage showed the uniformed soldier, with his weapon covered by a cloth, approaching the gates of the Belandai special forces base and throwing his arms up in surrender, the official said.
The video had been shown to investigators to help dispel a widely held belief among Afghans, including many members of parliament, that more than one soldier must have been involved because of the high death toll, the official said.
Panetta was to hold talks with Afghan leaders, including President Hamid Karzai, with tensions high following a spate of incidents, including the burning of Korans at the main NATO base in the country last month.
DEMAND FOR AFGHAN TRIAL
While Afghan members of parliament have called for a trial of the soldier responsible for the massacre under Afghan law, Karzai's office was understood to accept that a trial in a U.S. court would be acceptable, provided the process was transparent and open to media.
The Pentagon said the soldier, whose name has not been released, was flown out of Afghanistan. The commander of U.S. and Afghan forces in Afghanistan, General John Allen, made the decision based on a legal recommendation, a U.S. official said.
In the two Panjwai district villages where the massacre took place, U.S. troops remained confined to the compound where the soldier was based, and people in the area demanded a trial in Afghanistan under Afghan law.
"They have to be prosecuted here. They have done two crimes against my family. One, they killed them, and secondly, they burned them," said Wazir Mohammad, 40, who lost 11 members of his family in the incident.
Panetta's visit to Helmand - where U.S. Marines and British soldiers are battling a resilient insurgency - came a day after the first protests over Sunday's massacre flared in the eastern city of Jalalabad.
Some 2,000 demonstrators chanted "Death to America" and demanded Karzai reject a planned strategic pact that would allow U.S. advisers and possibly special forces to remain beyond the pullout of most NATO combat troops by the end of 2014.
The U.S. military hopes to withdraw about 23,000 soldiers from Afghanistan by the end of the coming summer fighting season, leaving about 68,000.
With its mission facing increasing protests in Afghanistan, NATO said on Wednesday that it plans to boost security measures for its troops there, a decision that was based the January killing of four French soldiers by a rogue Afghan soldier.
"It's a mix of measures concerning vetting, screening, but also training and education," said Oana Lungescu, spokeswoman for the Western military alliance.
The plan would strengthen security measures for ISAF (the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan), as well as improve the vetting, screening and monitoring of Afghan forces and "crucially improve cultural awareness on both sides," a NATO spokeswoman said in Brussels.
(Additional reporting by Ahmad Nadem in Kandahar, Mirwais Harooni in Kabul and David Alexander in Washington; Writing by Rob Taylor; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Anthony Boadle)