U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has apologized for the "inappropriate treatment" of copies of the Koran at a U.S. base in Afghanistan and promised a swift investigation.
In a statement on February 21, Panetta said he had been notified by the commander of international troops in Afghanistan, U.S. General John Allen, "of the deeply unfortunate incident involving the inappropriate treatment of religious materials, including the Koran" at Bagram Air Field north of Kabul.
Earlier the same day, protesters shouting "Death to America" gathered outside the Bagram compound following reports that NATO troops had burned copies of the Muslim holy book.
General Allen on February 21 offered "sincere apologies" to Afghanistan's government and people, saying the mistreatment of the Islamic materials at the Bagram base north of Kabul was "not intentional" and was halted as soon as officials discovered it.
"When we learned of these actions, we immediately intervened and stopped them," Allen said. "The materials recovered will be properly handled by appropriate religious authorities."
A crowd estimated at some 2,000 people gathered outside the security walls of the sprawling Bagram compound early on February 21 to protest the destruction of Korans.
Some in the crowd threw gasoline bombs and fired slingshots and hunting guns, while others shouted "Death to Americans" and "Death to infidels."
NATO guards responded by firing rubber bullets from a watchtower. An AFP photographer who was struck in the neck by a rubber bullet said he saw at least seven Afghans who were injured by rubber bullets.
No deaths were reported at the Bagram protests.
Several hundred people also gathered at protests in Kabul.
Found In The Trash
Ahmad Zaki Zahed, an Afghan provincial council chief, said U.S. military officials gave him about 30 copies of the Koran that had been recovered at Bagram before they were destroyed.
He said some of the books, which were used by Bagram detainees, were partially burned, while others had escaped damage.
Zahed said five Afghan workers at Bagram told him that the materials were in trash transported by two NATO soldiers in a truck late on February 20 to a pit where garbage is burned. He said the disposal process was stopped when the workers noticed the religious books in the trash.
Attempt To Prevent Violence
Allen's candid apology -- broadcast repeatedly on Afghan television -- appeared to be aimed at limiting damage and anger after similar incidents involving the Islamic holy book led to violence and deadly attacks on foreigners.
"I offer my sincere apologies for any offense this may have caused -- my apologies to the president of Afghanistan, my apologies to the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and most importantly, my apologies to the noble people of Afghanistan," Allen said in his televised apology.
"I would like to thank the local Afghan people who helped us identify the error and who worked with us to immediately take corrective action."
In April 2011, 10 people were killed and dozens injured in Afghanistan during days of unrest that were unleashed by the burning of a Koran by a radical U.S. Christian minister, Terry Jones, in Florida.