South Asia

US 'well-positioned' to start Afghan withdrawal - Gates

Isaf Commander Gen David Petraeus greets US Defence Secretary Robert Gates in Kabul
Image caption Mr Gates's visit comes at a time of widespread anger towards the US over civilian casualties

The US is "well-positioned" to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July, the US defence secretary says.

Robert Gates was speaking during an unannounced visit to the Afghan capital Kabul, where he is discussing the future of US involvement in the conflict-torn country.

Mr Gates also apologised over the deaths of nine Afghan boys over the weekend in a Nato air strike.

The incident has triggered widespread public anger in Afghanistan.

Mr Gates' apology comes just one day after Afghan President Hamid Karzai rejected an apology from Gen David Petraeus, the US commander of foreign troops in Afghanistan.

US President Barack Obama also apologised for the killings of the boys, which he described as a "tragic accident".

The president added civilian deaths were the main cause of a worsening in the relationship between Afghanistan and the US.

Hundreds of Afghans rallied on Sunday to denounce the killings. The protesters condemned both Nato and the Taliban for killing civilians.

'Small fraction'

Mr Gates was speaking alongside President Karzai, who later this month is expected to announce the schedule for the handover of security responsibility from foreign forces to Afghans.

But Mr Gates is yet to indicate how many of the 97,000 US forces in the country will be withdrawn.

Earlier on Monday, he told troops at Bagram airbase that both the US and Afghan governments agree that the US should remain involved even after 2014, when the withdrawal of troops is scheduled to be completed.

"Obviously it would be a small fraction of the presence that we have today, but I think we're willing to do that," he is quoted by the Associated Press news agency as saying.

While many Afghans accept that American troops are needed to defeat the Taliban, they resent their presence in the country, says the BBC's Quentin Sommerville in Kabul.

The war is in its 10th year, civilian casualties are at an all-time high, and the population has grown weary of the fighting.

Insurgents are to blame for most of the deaths, but killings by foreign troops generate widespread outrage, our correspondent adds.

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