REPORTING FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in a fresh outburst of angry rhetoric against the United States, declared Friday that he was at the "end of the rope" over civilian deaths in the war and what he described as excessive U.S. secrecy concerning the probe into a recent shooting rampage that left 16 villagers dead in Kandahar province.
The Afghan leader's comments came after a tearful meeting at the presidential palace with relatives of the victims from Kandahar's Panjwayi district, where nine of the dead were children. A U.S. Army staff sergeant is suspected in the shootings.
Karzai said afterward that villagers' accounts of the tragedy could not be reconciled with the U.S. military's assertion that the shooter acted alone. The American military has produced surveillance video that reportedly shows the assailant returning to his base alone following the killings.
American officials have suggested that Karzai's sometimes incendiary rhetoric in recent days is meant mainly for domestic consumption, and said the president has routinely taken a far more conciliatory tone in direct discussions with U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, with whom he met Thursday.
The Afghan leader is facing a swell of public anger over the fact that the soldier accused in Sunday's shootings was flown out of the country by the Americans, in defiance of demands by Afghan lawmakers that he face a public trial in this country.
On Friday, a day after having issued a strident public demand that Western troops pull back from outposts in rural areas, Karzai spoke by phone with President Obama. Afterward, the presidential palace softened Karzai's previous language somewhat, saying the two sides had "agreed to further discuss concerns voiced by President Karzai about the presence of foreign troops in Afghan villages."
Civilian casualties have long been a sore point with Karzai, even prior to the shootings in Panjwayi. U.S. officials have described the shooting spree as a dramatic aberration from military practices and standards, while Karzai has cast the event as not atypical.
"This has been going on for too long," he said. "It is by all means the end of the rope here. ... This behavior cannot be tolerated. It is past, past, past the time."
More than 3,000 civilians were killed last year in wartime violence, according to the United Nations, but the world body blamed more than three-quarters of the deaths on insurgents.
-- Laura King
Photo: Afghan President Hamid Karzai, right, talks with officials during a meeting with relatives of civilians who were killed in a shooting rampage Sunday. Credit: S. Sabawoon / EPA