The American soldier accused of gunning down 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, has been flown out of Afghanistan to Kuwait.
by Richard Engel
A U.S soldier suspected of shooting to death 16 Afghan civilians was flown out of Afghanistan to Kuwait on Wednesday evening, the U.S. military said.
The soldier was taken out of the country “based on a legal recommendation,” said Navy Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman in Washington.
The 38-year old Staff Sergeant was transferred “based on a legal recommendation” because the “U.S. military (in Afghanistan) does not have the proper facilities to detain an American service member for any extended length of time,” a senior U.S. official told NBC News’ Jim Miklaszewski.
The soldier was moved to a detention facility in Kuwait and a military lawyer from Joint Base Lewis-McChord was headed to the facility to meet with the soldier, the official told NBC News.
The decision to move the soldier was made by the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, a senior Pentagon official said.
U.S. military officials told NBC News that they expect charges to be filed by at least the end of next week.
Afghan lawmakers expressed anger Thursday over the U.S. move to fly out the soldier accused of killing 16 civilians, mostly women and children, saying Kabul shouldn’t sign a strategic partnership agreement with Washington unless the suspect faces justice in Afghanistan.
Negotiations over the agreement, which would govern the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after most combat troops withdraw by the end of 2014, were tense even before the shooting deaths of the civilians in southern Kandahar province on Sunday.
“It was the demand of the families of the martyrs of this incident, the people of Kandahar and the people of Afghanistan to try him publicly in Afghanistan,” said Mohammad Naeem Lalai Hamidzai, a Kandahar lawmaker who is part of a parliamentary commission investigating the shootings.
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On Wednesday, an Afghan man drove a stolen pickup onto a runway at Camp Bastion, the main British base in southern Afghanistan, before crashing into a ditch — right around the time that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s plane was touching down, U.S. defense officials said.
The man who crashed the truck at the airfield in southern Afghanistan as the defense secretary’s plane was landing and then exited the vehicle in flames died of extensive burns on Thursday.
U.S. Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparotti, deputy commander of American forces in Afghanistan, told reporters traveling with Panetta in Kabul that he believed the man — an interpreter working for foreign forces — was targeting a group of U.S. Marines assembled on the ramp. He said it would have been difficult to know which plane the defense secretary was aboard.
The secretary’s aircraft had to taxi to a different location. No one in Panetta’s party was hurt, said Kirby.
“At no time was the secretary or the secretary’s delegation in any danger whatsoever,” George Little, a Pentagon spokesman traveling with Panetta, told reporters after the incident.
Panetta arrived in Afghanistan for an unannounced two-day visit with Afghan officials and U.S. troops — the first by a senior member of the Obama administration since the shootings over the weekend.
Panetta told soldiers at Camp Leatherneck, the main U.S. Marine base in the volatile area: “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.”
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He added: “As tragic as these acts of violence have been, they do not define the relationship between the coalition and Afghan forces and the Afghan people.”
Panetta also met with Afghan provincial leaders. He told them that the U.S. will “continue to face challenges, from the enemy, from ourselves,” but the U.S. “must stay committed to achieving the mission,” according to Little.
In Washington, President Barack Obama said Britain and their NATO allies are committed to shifting to a support role in Afghanistan in 2013.
Speaking alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron at joint a news conference in the White House, Obama said that next phase in the transition will be an important step in turning security control over to the Afghans by the end of 2014.
Panetta’s visit to Afghanistan was planned months ago, long before the weekend slaughter that claimed the lives of 16 villagers. But the trip propels Panetta into the center of escalating anti-American anger and sets the stage for some difficult discussions with Afghan leaders.
There were clear concerns about security in the large tent at Camp Leatherneck where Panetta was slated to talk to troops.
Before Panetta came into the hall, Sgt. Maj. Brandon Hall told the more than 200 Marines in the room to take their weapons outside and leave them there. Afghan troops had already been told not to bring their guns in.
A U.S. defense official said the order was not a reaction to an immediate threat. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said the base commander made the decision that no one would be allowed to bring in weapons.
Afghans investigating the village massacre 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 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 belief among some Afghans, including many members of parliament, that more than one soldier must have been involved because of the high death toll, the official said.