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Killings 'must not derail strategy'

The international military strategy in Afghanistan must not be derailed by the massacre of Afghan civilians by a renegade US solider, David Cameron has said.

The Prime Minister, who flies out to Washington on Tuesday for talks with President Barack Obama, described the killings as "an absolutely dreadful event", but insisted Britain and its allies would "stick to the plan".

"We must stick to the plan and deliver the plan as we set it out," he told reporters in Downing Street.

"This really is an absolutely appalling thing that has taken place and, of course, it will have its impact, but we must do everything we can to make sure it doesn't in any way derail the very good work that American and British and other Isaf forces are doing in Afghanistan."

The Taliban was quick to exploit local anger over the deaths of the 16 Afghans - many of them children - vowing to seek revenge for the "blood-soaked and inhumane crime". A US Army staff sergeant is currently in custody at a Nato base after reportedly handing himself in following the attacks in two villages near his base in Kandahar province.

The US military authorities have promised a "rapid and thorough investigation" into the killings which have become the latest setback to hit the international military force in the country (Isaf).

It comes after the burning of Korans by US soldiers triggered violent protests across the country while last week six British soldiers died when their Warrior armoured fighting vehicle was destroyed in a massive explosion.

Mr Cameron acknowledged that it was "very difficult" but said it was essential to continue the transition to Afghan forces ahead of the withdrawal of most international troops by the end of 2014.

"We have a good plan. We have a plan which is about transitioning Afghanistan over to Afghan control," he said. "The most important thing is that we stick to that plan, we deliver that plan and then we can bring our troops home, having done a good job in giving Afghanistan at least a chance of stability and prosperity and growth for the future."

He was backed by the former head of the Army, General Lord Dannatt, who acknowledged the killings had been a setback to the mission, but warned that a "precipitate" withdrawal of international forces would be a mistake.

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