A senior U.S. commander defended on Thursday moving a U.S. soldier accused of slaughtering 16 Afghan civilians out of Afghanistan to a military detention centre in Kuwait, saying it would help ensure a proper investigation and trial.
Furious Afghan civilians and members of parliament have demanded the staff sergeant be tried in Afghanistan over the shooting, one of the worst of its kind since U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in 2001 for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders.
"This is really about being able to ensure that we can execute this investigation and the judicial proceedings fairly and properly," said Lieutenant-General Curtis Scaparrotti, the second most senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the suspect was moved to Kuwait, while NATO said only that the soldier was spirited out of Afghanistan late on Wednesday.
Asked about the possible impact on ties with Afghanistan, Lt.-Gen. Scaparrotti said: "We informed the government that we were going to move the individual, and their response was that they understood that. That is what we had done under the protocol that we used throughout in serious incidents."
The killings in Kandahar province on Sunday have raised questions about Western strategy in Afghanistan and intensified calls for the withdrawal of foreign combat troops, most of whom are scheduled to pull out by the end of 2014.
Relatives of the dead villagers and Afghanistan's parliament demanded the American soldier be tried in Afghanistan under Afghan law, although President Hamid Karzai has called only for an open trial process.
"This is against our demands and we strongly condemn the moving of the soldier out of the country," said Shekiba Hashimi, a member of parliament from Kandahar, who is also on the government's investigating team.
"If he is not tried and punished in the country, people will rise up against the Americans," Mr. Hashimi said, pointing to fury that boiled into deadly riots last month after U.S. soldiers inadvertently burned copies of the Koran.
Lt.-Gen. Scaparrotti also said an Afghan man who emerged ablaze from a stolen pickup truck as an aircraft carrying U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta landed at a base in Afghanistan on Wednesday had died from burns suffered in the incident.
It was an extraordinary security breach inside a military base in Afghanistan's south and coincided with the beginning of an unannounced two-day visit by the Pentagon chief.
The airfield incident and the Kandahar massacre underscored the instability in Afghanistan a decade into an increasingly unpopular war, and are the latest in a series of events that have fuelled anger among Afghans over the foreign presence.
The Afghan, a contractor who worked as a translator, had apparently tried to ram the truck into a group of U.S. Marines standing on a runway ramp at Camp Bastion in Helmand province, Lt.-Gen. Scaparrotti said.
He told reporters travelling with Mr. Panetta that he doubted the man had any idea the U.S. defence chief was arriving at the heavily guarded base. Mr. Panetta and his delegation were unharmed.
It appeared the contractor had been carrying some kind of container that may have contained fuel. A military dog was let loose on the driver and helped restrain him after he crashed the truck into a ditch, an official said.
"Those who were (there) described to me that (there was) a puff of smoke, and then the individual came out engulfed in flames. The security detachment there doused the flames and we took him for medical care," Lt.-Gen. Scaparrotti said.
"I personally don't believe that it had any connection with the secretary's arrival," he said. "My personal opinion is yes, that he had an intent to harm, that he tried to hit the people on the ramp."
Mr. Panetta is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Afghanistan since the shooting rampage in Kandahar, which is next to Helmand and the birthplace of the Taliban.
He told U.S. troops after he arrived that the massacre must not deter them from their mission to secure Afghanistan ahead of an end-2014 deadline for the withdrawal of most foreign combat forces.
Tension has risen sharply since the killings and the burning of copies of the Koran at the main NATO base in the country last month, adding urgency to Panetta's visit. Panetta was to hold talks with President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan leaders.
The Taliban have threatened to retaliate for the shootings by beheading U.S. personnel, while insurgents have also attacked Afghan officials investigating the incident. But it is civilians who invariably bear the brunt of surges in violence.
On Wednesday, at least nine people were killed in two separate bombings in Kandahar and Helmand provinces.
They followed demonstrations on Tuesday in an eastern Afghan city where protesters called on Mr. Karzai to reject a strategic pact that would allow U.S. advisers and possibly special forces to remain beyond 2014.
NATO leaders gathering in U.S. President Barack Obama's home city of Chicago on May 20-21 will decide the next phase of the planned transition to Afghan forces, which is already under way.
In Washington, Mr. Obama said after meeting British Prime Minister David Cameron he did not anticipate any sudden change in plans for the pace of withdrawing troops.
Mr. Obama described the Kandahar massacre as tragic but emphasized at a briefing with Cameron that both nations remained committed to completing the Afghan mission "responsibly".
"In terms of pace, I don't anticipate at this stage that we're going to be making any sudden additional changes to the plan that we currently have," Mr. Obama said.