The US defense secretary found himself in damage-control mode at a press conference in Brussels. Leon Panetta apologized for photos of US soldiers allegedly posing with the remains of Afghan suicide bombers.
Photos that allegedly show US soldiers posing with the remains of Afghan suicide bombers stole the show somewhat at a press conference that followed a meeting of NATO ministers in Brussels on Wednesday.
Asked about the photos by a news agency reporter, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta responded by condemning the alleged acts.
"I know war is ugly ... I know young people sometimes caught up in the moment ... make some very foolish decisions. I am not excusing that," Panetta said.
"My apology is on behalf of the Department of Defense and the U.S. government," he stressed. He also told reporters that an investigation had already been launched into the matter.
US President Barack Obama has also condemned the photos.
"The conduct depicted in those photos is reprehensible," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Air Force One as the president was on his way to Ohio for an economic speech.
Photos leaked by US soldier
The photos were published by the Los Angeles Times, which said it had received the photos from an unnamed US soldier who wanted to "to draw attention to the safety risk of a breakdown in leadership and discipline."
Davan Maharak, the Times' editor, said that "after careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan, including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops."
At the press conference in Brussels, Panetta expressed regret about the LA Times’ decision.
"Neither do I want these images to bring further injury to our people, or our relationship with the Afghan people," he said. "Those kinds of photos are used by (the) enemy to incite violence, and lives have been lost as a result."
The LA Times, citing the soldier who submitted the pictures, said troops had been tasked with going to Afghan police stations to take iris scans and fingerprints from bodies of suspected suicide bombers.
On two occasions, the soldiers performed this duty but then posed with the bombers' remains, sometimes holding body parts with Afghan police.
The soldier who submitted the photos noted that most of those pictured had lost friends in Afghanistan who had been killed by suicide attackers, and "celebrated" in the pictures that the bombers had been blown up by their own explosives.
US relations with Afghanistan have been strained in the past few months due to a number of incidents involving US troops in Afghanistan. In January, a video appeared online showing US troops urinating on Afghan corpses. February saw riots that killed dozens after it was discovered that copies of the Koran were inadvertently burned on a US base. And last month, a soldier left his base in Afghanistan and shot dead 17 civilians in nearby villages.
Panetta and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were in Brussels for a two-day meeting of NATO foreign and defense ministers aimed at readying plans to pull international combat troops out of Afghanistan.
Top military and diplomatic officials must finalize a handover program to Afghan security forces and a support strategy ahead of a 2014 withdrawal deadline. The summit is to lay the foundations for a conference of NATO leaders scheduled to take place in Chicago in May.
Long-term funding for security in Afghanistan is a key issue to be resolved, with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen saying a figure of roughly $4 billion (3.06 billion euros) per year had been mentioned.
The difficulties in ending the decade-long conflict were underscored by a bold Taliban onslaught over the weekend in the Afghan capital, Kabul. Some 51 people including 36 insurgents were killed on Sunday in a wave of coordinated attacks.
mz,acb/pfd (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)