At least two US soldiers have been killed in clashes in Afghanistan after the Taliban urged Afghans to target foreign troops in retaliation over reports that copies of the Quran were burnt at a NATO airbase, as protests continued for a third day.
The US soldiers died in two separate incidents on Thursday, according to the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Two US soldiers were also reported wounded by Afghan sources, although ISAF has not confirmed the casualties.
In a statement regarding one of the incidents, ISAF said a US soldier was killed in Nangarghar province when a man dressed as an Afghan soldier opened fire on NATO troops.
Two Afghans were also killed in the incident, while five Afghan protesters were reported dead elsewhere in the country.
Earlier, the Taliban called on the Afghan people to "target the military bases of invader forces, their military convoys and their invader bases".
The statement, issued via email by a spokesman named Zabihullah Mujahid, also called on Afghans to give NATO troops "a lesson to never dare desecrate the holy Quran again".
Despite telling the public to "not stop" at protests, Mujahid said the calls against foreign military forces would not affect the group's negotiations with US officials in Doha.
Qatar process ' unaffected'
"We condemn the desecration of the Holy Quran in the strongest terms, but this issue will not affect this process in Qatar," he said.
Protesters once again took to the streets of the nation to express their anger, following reports earlier in the week of the discovery by local labourers of charred copies of the Quran as they collected rubbish at the US-run Bagram airforce base in Parwan province.
Protests continued in the Kart-e-Naw and Bagrami districts of Kabul, with several hundred turning out with banners reading "Long live Islam, long live the Quran".
In Laghman province, over 600 people marched into the provincial capital of Mihtarlam chanting "Death to America".
Afghan sources said the protests in Laghman had turned violent and had been growing since the early hours of the morning.
A police official speaking to the AFP news agency said thousands of protesters besieged the headquarters of a provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in the provincial capital.
"People had come from all over Laghman. They attacked the PRT, they climbed up the walls, they set fire to something there, I think a container," the police official said.
In the east, 300 students took to the streets of Jalalabad, according to AFP.
North of Jalalabad, fresh protests rocked the city of Asadadab in the province of Kunar, while there were also reports of protests in Khost province.
Protests spread to the north as people took the streets of Faryab, where hundreds gathered in the provincial capital, and Badakhshan provinces.
Wednesday's protests saw seven deaths and 32 wounded according to Afghan government sources.
The protests have prompted apologies over the reported Quran burning from the US government and the commander of NATO-led forces in Afghanistan.
The Afghan president's office says it has received a letter on Thursday from Barack Obama, the US president, formally apologising for the burning of Qurans.
In the letter, which is quoted in the statement, Obama expresses his "deep regret for the reported incident" and offers his "sincere apologies".
According to the statement, Obama wrote: "The error was inadvertent; I assure you that we will take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, to include holding accountable those responsible".
Earlier, Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, issued an apology for the "inappropriate treatment" of Islam's holy book at the base and backed General John Allen's call for "swift and decisive action to investigate this matter".
"These actions do not represent the views of the United States military. We honour and respect the religious practices of the Afghan people, without exception," he said.
The US embassy in Kabul was locked down on Wednesday and remained closed on Thursday.
The embassy said on Twitter that "peaceable assembly is an American value/tradition; we join President Karzai in urging restraint and nonviolence today."
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|Timothy V. Gatto|