U.S. President Barack Obama says there will be no "rush for the exits" from Afghanistan despite the killing of 16 Afghan civilians in a rampage by a suspected U.S. soldier on March 11.
Obama said in an interview that it was still necessary to "get out in a responsible way, so they don't end up having to go back in."
The killings have again aggravated U.S.-Afghan ties that were already tense after news emerged that U.S. troops in Afghanistan had burned copies of the Koran.
The U.S. statements came as international forces in Afghanistan braced for possible repercussions.
Underscoring the level of Afghan frustration, suspected militants reportedly fired on an Afghan government delegation that was visiting the site of the recent killings on March 13. Reports say one Afghan soldier was killed, while two other people were injured, including a member of the delegation, which included two of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's brothers.
In the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, meanwhile, several hundred university students gathered to demonstrate early on March 13 to express their outrage at the killings. A crowd of some 400 students marched through the city calling for the U.S. soldier to be tried in public in Afghanistan. The group carried an effigy of the U.S. president and banners with anti-U.S. slogans.
'Heartbreaking And Tragic'
Public opinion in both Afghanistan and the United States increasingly opposes the presence of U.S. and other foreign forces in Afghanistan.
Obama called the killings "absolutely heartbreaking and tragic."
But he added that there were thousands of troops, "hundreds of advisers in civilian areas," and "huge amounts of equipment" in Afghanistan and a need to ensure "Afghans can protect their borders to prevent Al-Qaeda from coming back."
Obama emphasized the United States would not be in Afghanistan "longer than we need to be."
The United States and its allies in Afghanistan are starting a draw-down of forces that should see most foreign soldiers out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, at which time Afghan government forces are slated to take over security duties in their country.
Killer Could Face Death Penalty
Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta suggested on his way to Kyrgyzstan overnight that the soldier responsible for the murders could face the death penalty.
Panetta told journalists traveling with him to Bishkek -- where the subject of a key U.S. military supply facility at Manas and a Kyrgyz threat to evict the international forces there were likely to be discussed -- that the suspect would be tried according to U.S. military law, which allows the death penalty in some cases.
Panetta echoed President Obama's comments, saying the killings must not derail the military mission in Afghanistan.
The U.S. Army staff sergeant is reported to have walked off his base in Afghanistan's southern Kandahar Province early in the morning on March 11 and gone to two nearby villages, breaking into homes and shooting dead the 16 Afghan civilians, including women and children, before trying to burn some of the bodies.
News agencies have quoted unnamed U.S. officials as saying the soldier responsible for the shootings had suffered a brain injury in Iraq in 2010 when the vehicle he was in rolled over, though it was unclear that could have played any role in the killings.
With AFP, AP, and Reuters reporting