Civilian deaths setback to ties: Gates
KABUL (PAN): US defence secretary Robert Gates on Monday personally apologised for US helicopter strikes that killed nine boys cutting firewood in eastern Kunar province, calling the incident a setback to US-Afghanistan relations.
Gates offered the apology to President Hamid Karzai at a press conference at the Presidential Palace on the first day of his unannounced two-day official visit to the country.
On the eve of Gates' visit, President Karzai told a security council meeting that an apology from Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of US and NATO forces in the country, over a string of recent civilian killings was "not enough".
Karzai, who is expected to unveil a timetable soon for the beginning of the gradual handover of security responsibility from foreign forces to Afghan lead, complained angrily after the children were killed last Tuesday. US President Barack Obama has expressed his "deep regret" over the incident.
"This breaks our heart," Gates told the news conference at the heavily fortified presidential palace.
He called the incident a setback for US relations with the Afghan people.
In response to Gates, Karzai said he respected the apology and called for civilian casualties to be halted altogether.
The US defence chief also insisted that US troops will be "well-positioned" to start a limited withdrawal from Afghanistan in July as planned, but stressed the US was not pulling out altogether after July and would maintain unrelenting pressure on the Taliban.
In comments to reporters earlier, Gates stressed the help that the US was willing to give Afghanistan in future ahead of the handover of responsibility for security to Afghan forces in 2014.
"Here in Afghanistan, we're in the process right now of beginning a negotiation with the Afghan government for a long-term security partnership," he said.
Karzai is expected to give details of where the transition process will start on March 21.
Press secretary Geoff Morrell, travelling with Gates, told reporters that this was "not a decision-making trip". However, he added the trip would certainly inform Gates on making those decisions in coming months.
Gates is also expected to visit troops in Afghanistan's south during the trip, as well as holding talks with Petraeus and US Ambassador to Kabul Karl Eikenberry.
Download “Pajhwok” mobile App, on your smartphone to read and access latest news, features, interviews, videos and photos about Afghanistan.