Afghan President Hamid Karzai is calling for NATO forces to pull back from Afghan villages and relocate to their bases following the killing of 16 civilians in southern Afghanistan earlier this week, allegedly by a U.S. soldier.
Karzai's statement Thursday came as the Taliban announced it was suspending peace talks with the United States until "the Americans clarify their stance on the issues," including a prisoner swap. The U.S. reportedly was holding preliminary talks in Qatar with the insurgent group to find a political settlement to the decade-long war, as international troops begin leaving Afghanistan.
Karzai told visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that the Afghan government wants to take full control of the country's security in 2013 rather than 2014, as planned. During Thursday's talks in Kabul, he told Panetta, "Afghanistan is ready to take over all security responsibilities now."
The Afghan leader also demanded NATO pull out of Afghanistan's rural areas following Sunday's alleged massacre of 16 Afghan civilians, including children, by a U.S. soldier in Kandahar province. The soldier later surrendered.
A U.S. defense official later downplayed Karzai's call for NATO's withdrawal from village outposts, saying "right now, there's no reason to think that schedule should change and President Karzai did not ask for any change in the current schedule."
Karzai also told Panetta that everything must be done to prevent incidents such as the shooting spree in the future. The U.S. defense secretary said he promised the Afghan president that the gunman would be brought to justice.
The U.S. staff sergeant, who has not yet been named or charged, was flown out of Afghanistan to Kuwait late Wednesday. U.S. Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparotti, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said the suspect was moved to ensure "both proper pre-trial confinement and access to legal services."
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Captain John Kirby, said the transfer did not necessarily mean the suspect's trial would not be held in Afghanistan, as many Afghans have demanded.
In the southern city of Qalat, protesters chanted anti-American slogans Thursday, calling for justice and a public trial in Afghanistan for the accused U.S. soldier.
The U.S. defense secretary arrived in Afghanistan on Wednesday, just three days after the killings.
After talks with Karzai on Thursday, Panetta said he was confident that the United States and Afghanistan will reach a deal on the long-term U.S. presence in the country after international combat troops leave Afghanistan in 2014.
Panetta told reporters he was optimistic that the two governments will reach an agreement on the issue of night raids, a major obstacle in the proposed U.S.-Afghan strategic deal. Karzai wants an end to such coalition operations, which he says cause civilian casualties.
Separately, Afghan officials say at least 10 women and children were killed Thursday when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb in the southern province of Uruzgan.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.