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U.S. Defense Chief Visits Afghanistan Amid Anger, Bombings

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta
KABUL -- U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has made a visit to Afghanistan, amid anger among Afghans over the burning of Korans by U.S. personnel and the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier.

Panetta told U.S. troops at the Camp Leatherneck base in southern Helmand Province on March 14 that the two cases were "deeply troubling" and had challenged the international community's efforts in the war-wracked country.

As Panetta visited, at least nine people were reported killed in two bombings in Afghanistan's south, while the Pentagon said an Afghan man crashed a stolen pickup truck on the runway at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province just as Panetta's plane was landing there.

The truck exploded in flames when the driver, reportedly a base employee, drove it into a ditch. NATO-led forces said the driver was receiving medical treatment and "at no point was anyone" on Panetta's plane endangered.

In the first bombing, RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal and other agencies say eight civilians were killed when a mine planted on a roadside exploded in Helmand Province's Marja district. Officials said Taliban militants are suspected of carrying out the attack.

In the other incident, in Kandahar city, one Afghan intelligence official was reported killed by a motorcycle bomb blast. At least two other people -- also members of the intelligence forces -- were reportedly injured.

The massacre in Kandahar Province on March 11 was the latest in a series of actions by U.S. troops that have caused public outrage among Afghans.

The slaughter came weeks after the burning of Korans at a U.S. military base sparked riots in Afghanistan that killed some 40 people.

U.S. leaders have apologized for the burning of the Islamic holy book, saying mistakes were made as troops sought to dispose of the books.

Incidents 'Won't Alter' U.S. Strategy

In his remarks on March 14, Panetta said the incidents would not alter U.S. strategy nor affect plans calling for the withdrawal of foreign combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Panetta said NATO and Afghan soldiers were continuing to make progress, but he said they must stay focused on the mission to defeat Al-Qaeda and counter the Taliban insurgency.

Panetta is the most senior U.S. official to visit Afghanistan since the shooting rampage by a U.S. staff sergeant in two Kandahar Province villages.

The U.S. defense chief's visit had been scheduled before the shootings, but analysts say the trip has gained added urgency in the wake of the massacre.

Panetta held talks with Helmand provincial leaders, and was also expected to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The situation in Afghanistan is also expected to feature in talks in Washington between President Barack Obama and David Cameron, the prime minister of U.S. ally Britain.

Officials said the Obama-Cameron talks were expected to deal with efforts to hand over security duties in Afghanistan from NATO-led forces to Afghan troops and police.

In a jointly authored article published in "The Washington Post" newspaper on March 13, the two leaders said their meeting would focus on how to shift the role of U.S. and British troops in Afghanistan to a "support role" for Afghan security forces, while ensuring that Afghanistan will never again become a haven for Al-Qaeda.

They said their talks would also help prepare for a May summit of NATO leaders in Chicago, at which Afghanistan is expected to be a leading subject of discussion.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and dpa