Defense Secretary Leon Panetta talks with Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, March 15, 2012, before leaving for United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Scott Olson, Pool)
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A U.S. official said Friday that talks with the Afghan government about night raids by NATO troops are going ahead despite the alleged killing spree by a U.S. soldier and a combative statement from the Afghan president.
The official said the two negotiating teams are still talking and nothing has interrupted the discussions. The official spoke Friday on condition of anonymity to discuss closed-door talks.
In Kabul, meanwhile, a NATO helicopter crashed into a house on Friday, killing 14 people — 12 Turkish soldiers on board and two young Afghan girls on the ground, officials said. The helicopter, a Sikorsky, was on a mission for U.S.-led NATO forces when it went down near the Afghan capital, the Turkish military said in a statement.
There are worries President Hamid Karzai's call for international troops to withdraw from rural areas following Sunday's killing of 16 Afghan villagers by an American soldier could derail efforts for a long-term pact to govern U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The issue of the night raids is key to getting to that larger deal. Karzai has demanded that no international forces take part in night raids. NATO forces have said that night operations are an essential tool for finding and capturing insurgent leaders.
Both U.S. and Afghan officials want to get the so-called strategic partnership deal signed by a NATO summit in May, but strains on U.S.-Afghan relations since the beginning of the year have raised questions about the future of the alliance between the two countries.
Relations were on edge even before Sunday's shootings of civilians in southern Afghanistan.
In late February, the burning of Qurans in a garbage pit at a U.S. base sparked a week of riots and retaliatory attacks that left more than 30 people dead, including six U.S. soldiers. And before that, a video emerged on the Internet in January that showed U.S. Marines urinating on corpses of alleged insurgent fighters they had killed.
On Thursday, the American campaign in Afghanistan suffered two punishing blows as the Taliban announced they were breaking off talks with the U.S. and Karzai tried to speed up the transfer of security responsibilities to Afghan forces.
A statement released by Karzai's office said that during his meeting with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the president "requested that the international forces come out of Afghan villages and stay in their bases."
Karzai also said that the "Afghan security forces have the ability to provide security in the villages of our country," the statement said.
Afghan officials said Karzai wanted the pullback to start now, but U.S. officials said he did not tell Panetta that it should happen immediately.
The Taliban said they were calling off the talks because U.S. had failed to follow through on its promises and made new demands. The militant group also said the U.S. falsely claimed that it had entered into multilateral negotiations that included the Afghan government.
The moves represent new setbacks to America's strategy for ending the 10-year-old war at a time when support for the conflict is plummeting. Part of the U.S. exit strategy is to transfer authority gradually to Afghan forces. Another tack is to pull the Taliban into political discussions with the Afghan government, though it's unclear that there has been any progress since January.
Also Friday, it emerged that a security breach at a British base in southern Afghanistan while Panetta was landing was more serious than previously disclosed.
The top U.S. commander in Helmand province, Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, and his British deputy were with a group of U.S. Marines, waiting for Panetta to land Wednesday at Bastion Air Field, when an Afghan man tried to run the Marines down, defense officials said.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said an Afghan contractor, who worked as an interpreter at the base, hijacked a white Toyota SUV and tried to run down the Marines. The Afghan had a lighter and a container of fuel in the vehicle which ignited. He was badly burned as his vehicle crashed and later died.
Panetta's C-17 military transport plane was taxiing toward the landing ramp when officials at the airport saw the smoke and the burning man, and directed the defense secretary's plane to a different landing area, a senior defense official said.
The official also said that three Afghans, including the father and brother of the alleged attacker, were detained by the military. It was not clear if they were still in custody. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann and Sebastian Abbot contributed to this report in Kabul. Lolita C. Baldor also contributed.