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US defence secretary in Afghanistan

US defence secretary Leon Panetta has arrived in Afghanistan to meet troops, commanders and Afghan government officials just days after a US soldier allegedly went on a deadly shooting spree.

The visit was planned months ago, long before the weekend rampage in which 16 villagers, including women and children, were killed. The military has detained an Army staff sergeant in connection with Sunday's massacre.

The trip propels Mr Panetta into the centre of escalating anti-American anger and sets the stage for some difficult discussions with Afghan leaders.

He and other US officials have said the shooting spree should not derail the US and Nato strategy of a gradual withdrawal of troops by the end of 2014. But it has further soured relations with war-weary Afghans, jeopardising the US strategy of working closely with Afghan forces so they can take over their country's security.

There were clear concerns about security in the large tent at Camp Leatherneck where Mr Panetta was due to talk to troops.

Before he came into the hall, Sergeant Major Brandon Hall told the more than 200 Marines to take their weapons outside and leave them there. A US defence official said the request was not a reaction to an immediate threat but a decision by the base commander.

The official said it was made out of respect for troops from other countries, such as the Afghans, who are never allowed to take guns into an event. It was not a request from Mr Panetta or his security team, he added.

Mr Panetta's two-day visit is scheduled to include meetings with President Hamid Karzai, Afghan defence officials and provincial leaders, as well as routine discussions with his commanders on the ground.

Meanwhile, one person was killed when a bomb exploded in Kandahar about 600 yards away from the delegation, a witness and a hospital officials said.

Mohammad Saleem, a shopkeeper in the area, said the bomb was packed in a motorcycle. No members of the delegation were reported wounded or killed.


From Belfast Telegraph