Defense chief Panetta in Afghanistan after massacre

BASTION AIRFIELD, Afghanistan Wed Mar 14, 2012 3:04am EDT

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BASTION AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Afghanistan on an unannounced visit on Wednesday, as the United States tries to contain fallout from a massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by an American soldier.

Panetta's two-day trip had been scheduled before Sunday's shootings, but it takes on new meaning as political pressure mounts on Afghan and U.S. officials over the unpopular war, now dragging into its eleventh year.

Panetta was scheduled to hold talks with Afghan leaders including President Hamid Karzai, as well as provincial officials in southern Helmand province during the visit.

He was also due to speak with American troops in Afghanistan, who could become the targets of any backlash over the killings of villagers, including nine children, by a rogue American soldier. The Afghan Taliban threatened to retaliate by beheading American troops.

Panetta's arrival at Bastion Airfield in southern Helmand province came just a day after the first protests over Sunday's massacre flared in the eastern city of Jalalabad. Some 2,000 demonstrators chanted "Death to America" and demanded Karzai reject a planned strategic pact that would allow U.S. advisers and possibly special forces to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Panetta, the most senior U.S. official to visit Afghanistan since the shootings, told reporters at the start of his trip that he believed the U.S. strategy was working and would withstand fallout from the massacre.

"I think we're on the right path now… And what we've got to do is convince people that despite these kinds of events we ought not to allow these events to undermine that strategy," Panetta said on Monday.

(Editing by Rob Taylor and Sanjeev Miglani)

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