KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Afghanistan’s president, angered by a U.S. soldier’s alleged killings of 16 civilians, demanded Thursday that international troops pull out of villages and rural areas to main bases and let Afghan forces take the lead for countrywide security in 2013, a year ahead of schedule.
In another major blow to the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, the Taliban militant group said at the same time that it was breaking off talks with the United States, claiming the U.S. kept changing the terms of negotiations.
“Afghan security forces have the ability to keep the security in rural areas and in villages on their own,” Karzai said in a statement after meeting visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. He said he had conveyed his demand to Panetta during their meeting.
Karzai spoke as Afghan lawmakers were expressing outrage that the U.S. flew the soldier suspected in civilian killings to Kuwait Wednesday night when they were demanding he be tried in the country.
The soldier, who has not been named, is accused of going on a shooting rampage in villages near his base in southern Afghanistan on Sunday, killing nine children and seven other civilians, and then burning some of their bodies.
Karzai told Panetta that the weekend shootings in southern Afghanistan were cruel and that everything must be done to prevent any such incidents in the future. He said that was the reason he was demanding the pullout from rural areas and early transfer of security.
President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron said in Washington on Wednesday that they and their NATO allies were committed to shifting to a support role in Afghanistan in 2013.
Obama gave his fullest endorsement yet for the mission shift, but he said the overall plan to gradually withdraw forces and hand over security in Afghanistan will stand.
In January, after French President Nicolas Sarkozy suggested that foreign forces speed up their timetable for handing combat operations to Afghan forces in 2013, Karzai said he would be in favor of that – if it were achievable.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the insurgent group wanted to limit talks to prisoner transfers and the establishment of a political office in Qatar, but U.S. negotiators wanted to broaden the discussion.
The Taliban did not want the Afghan government included in the talks, he said.
“Because of these American changes, the Taliban was obliged to stop the talks,” Mujahid said.
(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)