Hundreds of Afghans have staged angry protests at two sites in and around the capital Kabul, angered by reports that NATO troops had set fire to copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book.
General John Allen, the American commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, offered his apology and ordered an investigation into the incident as protesters shouting "Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar" [God is great] besieged the US-run airbase in Bagram on Tuesday, firing slingshots and petrol bombs.
Guards at the base, about 60Km north of Kabul, responded by firing rubber bullets from a watchtower, an AFP news agency photographer said.
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, Ashamat Estanakzai, an Afghan police spokesman, told AFP.
Carsten Jacobson, a spokesman for the NATO-led international force in Afghanistan, said an investigation had been launched into the issue and preliminary information showed that Quran copies had not been burned.
“What actually happened was that in the course of last night, considerable amount of religious material, including Qurans, was set for disposal by ISAF personel," he said from Kabul.
"Fortunately for all of us, local workers recognised the type of material and intervened. Actually the disposal process was stopped in time but it led to protests over the day. As far as we know, and the investigations are ongoing, they were not burned. But we have to wait for the results."
Announcing the investigation into the reports of Quran burning, Allen, the US commander, said: "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.
"We are thoroughly investigating the incident and are taking steps to ensure this does not ever happen again,'' Allen said.
Allegations that NATO troops working inside the base had set fire to copies of the Quran were first reported by a senior government official.
“It is surprising that after all these years American and NATO forces have been here in Afghanistan and all the lessons they have learned about how important it is to treat Islamic material with due respect, this sort of thing is still happening," our correspondent said.
"That is what causes so much offence here in Afghanistan and adds fuel to the anti-American and anti-foreigner feelings."
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 caused last April over the burning of a copy of the Quran by an American pastor, Terry Jones, in Florida.
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|Liaquat Ali Khan|