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Obama: Killing Afghans as serious as killing Americans

 WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Tuesday said he viewed the killing of 16 Afghan civilians, allegedly by a U.S. soldier, as seriously as if those killed had been Americans.

"The U.S. takes this as seriously as if it were our own citizens and our own children who were murdered," Obama said at the White House.

Obama said he was directing the Pentagon to do a very thorough investigation of the weekend killings. He said the inquiry would "follow the facts" wherever they lead, and that anyone found responsible would be prosecuted fully. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the death penalty is possible if the soldier is convicted.

Obama's message was aimed at Afghans and at Americans for whom the killings were a reminder that tens of thousands of U.S. forces are fighting in Afghanistan more than 10 years after the war began.

Obama insisted that the killings will not change U.S. commitment to finishing the job in Afghanistan, but he was clearly trying to reassure Americans that he will close out the war.

"Make no mistake, we have a strategy that will allow us to responsibly wind down this war," Obama said.

Graphic of Afghanistan civilian casualties
Graphic of Afghanistan civilian casualtiesReuters

"We're steadily transitioning to the Afghans who are moving into the lead. And that's going to allow us to bring our troops home."

He repeated the timetable for bringing forces home that he had already laid out: 23,000 troops by the end of this summer, on top of 10,000 removed last year. He did not give a schedule for withdrawal of the approximately 68,000 U.S. forces that will remain in Afghanistan at the end of this year.

The U.S. and NATO allies agreed more than a year ago to leave forces in Afghanistan through 2014. There is political pressure in Europe, and increasingly in the United States, to speed up that deadline.

"There's no question that we face a difficult challenge in Afghanistan, but I am confident that we can continue the work of meeting our objectives, protecting our country and responsibly bringing this war to a close," Obama said.

Earlier Tuesday thousands of people took to the streets in eastern Afghanistan to protest the killings, burning an effigy of Obama and calling for the killer to be tried in Afghanistan.

Demonstrators in the city of Jalalabad chanted "Death to America -- Death to Obama" and blocked the main highway to Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, Britain's Daily Telegraph reported.

Afghan protestors shout anti-US slogans during a demonstration in Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province on March 13, 2012. Hundreds of university students took to the streets in Afghanistan's eastern city of Jalalabad to protest a rampage by a US soldier who killed 16 villagers, witnesses said. In the first street demonstrations since the mass killings on March 11, about 400 protesters shouted
Afghan protestors shout anti-US slogans during a demonstration in Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province on March 13, 2012. Hundreds of university students took to the streets in Afghanistan's eastern city of Jalalabad to protest a rampage by a US soldier who killed 16 villagers, witnesses said. In the first street demonstrations since the mass killings on March 11, about 400 protesters shoutedNOORULLAH SHIRZADA / AFP - Getty Images

"Jihad (holy war) is the only way to get the invading Americans out of Afghanistan," one banner read, according to the newspaper.

The demonstrators also demanded that President Hamid Karzai reject plans to sign a strategic pact with Washington that would allow U.S. advisers and possibly special forces to remain beyond a 2014 deadline for foreign combat troops to leave Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, militants attacked an Afghan government delegation that was visiting the site of the killings, the BBC reported.

"I can confirm that the Taliban have launched an attack from several directions against a government delegation," a senior official told the BBC. "At this stage, our forces are returning fire.''

Nine children and three women were among those killed in the massacre. According to reports, a 38-year-old staff sergeant had left his base in Panjwai district early on Sunday and broke into the victim's homes. Some of the bodies were burned.

The soldier had no history of behavioral problems but had been treated for traumatic brain injury after a previous deployment to Iraq, senior U.S. defense officials told NBC News.

U.S. officials rushed to draw a line between the shooting over the weekend and ongoing efforts of a U.S. force of around 90,000, and have been bracing themselves for reprisals as Afghans weary of the decade-old Western military presence vent their anger.

The Afghan Taliban threatened on Tuesday to behead U.S. troops in revenge for the massacre.

Taliban vows 'revenge' after US soldier kills 16 civilans in Afghanistan

"The Islamic Emirate once again warns the American animals that the mujahedeen will avenge them, and with the help of Allah will kill and behead your sadistic murderous soldiers," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in an emailed statement, using the term with which the Islamist group describes itself.

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Msnbc.com staff, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.