Afghan protesters firing slingshots and petrol bombs besieged the largest US-run military base in Afghanistan on Tuesday, furious over reports that NATO troops had set fire to copies of the Koran.
Guards at Bagram airbase, about 60 kilometres (40 miles) north of Kabul, responded by firing rubber bullets from a watchtower, an AFP photographer said as the crowd shouted “Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar” (God is greater).
Hundreds of other people protested in the Afghan capital as security forces dispatched reinforcements in a bid to stop the demonstrations from spiralling out of control in the fiercely conservative, Islamic country.
The US commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, apologised and ordered an investigation into a report that troops “improperly disposed of a large number of Islamic religious materials which included Korans”.
“I offer my sincere apologies for any offence this may have caused, to the president of Afghanistan, the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and most importantly, to the noble people of Afghanistan,” he said.
Allen’s remarkably candid statement, apparently aimed at damage limitation after similar incidents led to violence and attacks on foreigners, was played repeatedly on Afghan television.
Allegations that NATO troops working inside the base had set fire to copies of the Muslim holy book were first reported by a senior government official.
A local police official said more than 2,000 people were demonstrating outside the sprawling US-run Bagram base.
“They are demonstrating over the burning of copies of the Koran inside the base,” the official told AFP.
Sidiq Siddiqi, an interior ministry spokesman, confirmed the demonstration and said reinforcements were sent to the area to prevent possible violence.
Another protest by about 500 people broke out in the Pul-e-charkhi district of Kabul not far from major NATO bases on the Jalalabad road, police spokesman Ashamat Estanakzai told AFP.
“The police have the crowd in control, it is not violent,” he said.
Similar protests have in the past turned violent in Afghanistan, an extremely devout Islamic nation where an insult to the religion carries the death penalty.
Some 10 people were killed and dozens of others were injured during days of unrest unleashed last April over the burning of a Koran by American pastor Terry Jones in Florida.
Allen’s statement reflected concern over the impact of the latest incident.
“I have ordered an investigation into a report I received during the night that ISAF personnel at Bagram Airbase improperly disposed of a large number of Islamic religious materials which included Korans,” he said.
“When we learned of these actions, we immediately intervened and stopped them. The materials recovered will be properly handled by appropriate religious authorities.
“We are thoroughly investigating the incident and we are taking steps to ensure this does not ever happen again. I assure you… I promise you… this was NOT intentional in any way.”
Allen thanked “the local Afghan people who helped us identify the error, and who worked with us to immediately take corrective action”.