By Phil Stewart
KABUL, March 15 (Reuters) - A senior U.S. commander defended on Thursday moving an American soldier accused of slaughtering 16 Afghan civilians out of Afghanistan to a military detention centre in Kuwait, saying it would help ensure a proper investigation and trial.
Furious Afghan civilians and members of parliament have demanded the staff sergeant be tried in Afghanistan over the shooting, one of the worst of its kind since U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in late 2001.
"This is really about being able to ensure that we can execute this investigation and the judicial proceedings fairly and properly," said Lieutenant-General Curtis Scaparrotti, the second most senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the suspect was moved to Kuwait, while NATO said only that the soldier was spirited from Afghanistan late on Wednesday.
U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, in Kabul on a two-day visit to try to soothe Afghan anger, discussed the massacre with President Hamid Karzai at his heavily guarded palace and faced demands from the Afghan leader that any trial be transparent.
"I assured him first and foremost that I shared his regrets about what took place. I again pledged to him that we are proceeding with a full investigation here and that we will bring the individual involved to justice. He accepted that," Panetta told reporters.
The killings in Kandahar province on Sunday have raised questions about Western strategy in Afghanistan and intensified calls for the withdrawal of foreign combat troops, most of whom are scheduled to pull out by the end of 2014.
Relatives of dead villagers and Afghan members of parliament have demanded that the U.S. soldier be tried in Afghanistan under Afghan law.
"This is against our demands and we strongly condemn the moving of the soldier out of the country," said Shekiba Hashimi, a member of parliament from Kandahar, who is also on the government's investigating team.
"If he is not tried and punished in the country, people will rise up against the Americans," Hashimi said, pointing to fury that boiled into deadly riots last month after U.S. soldiers inadvertently burned copies of the Koran.
Scaparrotti also said an Afghan man who emerged ablaze from a stolen pickup truck as an aircraft carrying Panetta landed at an Afghan base on Wednesday had died from burns suffered in the incident.
It was an extraordinary security breach inside a military base in Afghanistan's south and coincided with the beginning of the Pentagon chief's unannounced two-day visit.
The airfield incident and the Kandahar massacre underscored the instability in Afghanistan a decade into an increasingly unpopular war, and are the latest in a series of events that have fuelled anger among Afghans over the foreign presence.
CURBING NIGHT RAIDS?
The Afghan, a translator, had apparently tried to ram the truck into U.S. Marines standing on a runway ramp at Camp Bastion in Helmand province.
"I have absolutely no reason to believe that any of this was directed at me," Panetta said, adding that that kind of incident was inevitable in war zones.
Scaparrotti said he doubted the man had any idea Panetta was arriving at the base. No one in Panetta's delegation was harmed.
It appeared the man had been carrying some kind of container that may have been holding fuel. A military dog was let loose on the driver and helped restrain him after he crashed the truck into a ditch, an official said.
"Those who were (there) described to me that (there was) a puff of smoke, and then the individual came out engulfed in flames. The security detachment there doused the flames and we took him for medical care," Scaparrotti said.
After his talks with Karzai, Panetta said he was confident the two governments would reach a deal curbing night raids which are a major source of anger in Afghanistan and have severely dented Karzai's popularity despite his opposition to them.
A deal should be signed, he said, before NATO leaders gathered in U.S. President Barack Obama's home city of Chicago on May 20-21 to decide the next phase of transition to Afghan security forces and their long-term funding.
Panetta is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Afghanistan since the shooting rampage in Kandahar, which is the birthplace of the Taliban.
Tension has risen sharply since the killings and the burning of copies of the Koran at the main NATO base in the country last month, adding urgency to Panetta's visit.
The Taliban have threatened to retaliate for the shootings by beheading U.S. personnel, while insurgents have also attacked Afghan officials investigating the incident. But it is civilians who invariably bear the brunt of surges in violence.
In Washington, Obama said after meeting British Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday he did not anticipate any sudden change in plans for the pace of withdrawing troops.
Obama described the Kandahar massacre as tragic but emphasised at a briefing with Cameron that both nations remained committed to completing the Afghan mission "responsibly".
"In terms of pace, I don't anticipate at this stage that we're going to be making any sudden additional changes to the plan that we currently have," Obama said. (Writing by Jack Kimball and Rob Taylor; Editing by Robert Birsel)