THE US soldier accused of massacring 16 civilians in Afghanistan has been flown out of the country to an American base in Kuwait.
The military said the unnamed staff sergeant had been transferred because there were no suitable facilities for long-term detention in Afghanistan but the move signalled the US's desire to prevent the criminal case against him from becoming a flashpoint for further violence.
The decision is likely to provoke fury in Afghanistan, where MPs have demanded that the soldier be handed over to the Afghan justice system and called on President Hamid Karzai to suspend all talks with the US until that happens.
Many fear a misstep by the US military in handling the case could ignite a firestorm in Afghanistan that would shatter already tense relations between the two countries. The alliance appeared near breaking point last month when the burning of Qurans in a garbage pit at a U.S. base sparked protests and retaliatory attacks that killed more than 30 people, including six US soldiers.
In recent days the two nations made headway toward an agreement governing a long-term American presence here, but the massacre in Kandahar province on Sunday has called all such negotiations into question.
Afghan lawmakers have demanded that the soldier be publicly tried in Afghanistan to show that he was being brought to justice, calling on President Hamid Karzai to suspend all talks with the US until that happens.
The soldier was held by the U.S. military in Kandahar until Wednesday evening, when he was flown out of Afghanistan to Kuwait "based on a legal recommendation," said Navy Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.
"We do not have appropriate detention facilities in Afghanistan," Mr Kirby said, explaining that he was referring to a facility for a U.S. service member "in this kind of case."
Captain Kirby said the transfer did not necessarily mean the trial would be held outside Afghanistan, but Pentagon sources said it was unlikely he would be returned there.
The decision to remove the soldier from the country may complicate the prosecution, said Michael Waddington, an American military defense lawyer who represented a ringleader of the 2010 thrill killings of three Afghan civilians by soldiers from the same Washington state base as the accused staff sergeant.
The prosecutors won't be able to use statements from Afghan witnesses unless the defense is able to cross-examine them, he said.
Waddington said the decision to remove the suspect was likely a security call.
"His presence in the country would put himself and other service members in jeopardy," Waddington said.
The US staff sergeant allegedly slipped out of his small base in southern Afghanistan before dawn, crept into three houses and shot men, women and children at close range then burned some of the bodies. By sunrise, there were 16 corpses.
Some Afghan officials and residents in the villages that were attacked have insisted there was more than one shooter. If the disagreement persists, it could deepen the distrust between the two countries.
Panetta, in a series of meetings with troops and Afghan leaders Wednesday, said the U.S. must never lose sight of its mission in the war, despite recent violence including what appeared to be an attempted attack near the runway of a military base where he was about to land.
It wasn't clear whether it was an attempt to attack the defense chief, whose travel to southern Afghanistan was not made public before he arrived. Panetta was informed of the incident after landing.
"We will not allow individual incidents to undermine our resolve to that mission," he told about 200 Marines at Camp Leatherneck. "We will be tested we will be challenged, we'll be challenged by our enemy, we'll be challenged by ourselves, we'll be challenged by the hell of war itself. But none of that, none of that, must ever deter us from the mission that we must achieve."
According the Pentagon spokesman, an Afghan stole a vehicle at a British airfield in southern Afghanistan and drove it onto a runway, crashing into a ditch about the same time that Leon Panetta's aircraft was landing.
The pickup truck drove at high speed onto the ramp where Panetta's plane was intended to stop, Kirby said. No one in Panetta's party was injured.