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In 'highly unusual' move, Marines asked to disarm before Leon Panetta speech

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's message to troops Wednesday was to stay the course. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

In a highly unusual move, around 200 U.S. Marines were asked to leave their weapons outside the tent where U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was set to speak during his trip to Afghanistan on Wednesday.

Although the military said the order was not given in response to Sunday's shooting of 16 Afghan civilians allegedly by an American soldier, it possibly underlined how high tensions were running after the incident.


"You've got one of the most important people in the world in the room," Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus told reporters at Camp Leatherneck, dismissing concerns related to the shooting. "This is not a big deal."

He said he had given the order because the two dozen Afghan soldiers also there were unarmed and he did not want to treat them differently.

Chris Turner / Pool

Troops stacking guns at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan before the arrival of U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday.

Among those killed Sunday were nine children, and some of the bodies were reportedly burned. The suspect, who hasn't been named, is in U.S. custody.

According to reporters at Camp Leatherneck, the Marines were waiting to hear Panetta's speech when they were abruptly told by their commander to get up, leave their weapons, including M16 and M-4 automatic rifles and 9 mm pistols, outside and return unarmed.

"All I know is I was told to get the weapons out," Sergeant Major Brandon Hall told The New York Times. Asked why, he replied, "Somebody got itchy, that's all I've got to say. Somebody got itchy; we just adjust."

Hall said he was acting on orders from superiors, the Times reported.

Just days after an Army staff sergeant allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians in a shooting rampage, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Afghanistan to meet with government officials and U.S. troops. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

'Sends the wrong message'
Military officials in Washington told NBC News' chief Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski that the decision to disarm the Marines was indeed significant.

Panetta: Village massacre won't deter US mission

"It sends the wrong message" that Marines can't be trusted in the presence of the secretary of defense," one told him.

U.S. officials told Marines to leave a tent and disarm themselves before re-entering for a meeting with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. NBC's Atia Abawi and Jim Miklaszewski report.

According to one official the decision was "stupid."

Miklaszewski also told NBC's Chuck Todd Wednesday that the move was "highly unusual" and that Marines in combat zones are always supposed to have weapons within their reach.

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NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.