Telegraph.co.uk – February 21, 2012
The enraged crowd shouted “Death to Americans” and “Death to infidels” at guards at Bagram airbase, north of Kabul. The guards responded by firing rubber bullets on the crowd, said an AFP photographer, who was hit in the neck.
US helicopters fired flares to try to break up as many as 2,000 demonstrators who massed outside several gates to the base.
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.
Gen 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 at Bagram had set fire to copies of the Muslim holy book were first reported by Afghans working at the base, a senior government official said.
Ahmad Zaki Zahed, chief of the provincial council, said US military officials took him to a burn pit on the base where 60 to 70 books, including Korans, were recovered. The books were used by detainees once incarcerated at the base, he said.
“Some were all burned. Some were half-burned,” Zahed said, adding that he did not know exactly how many Korans had been burned.
A local police official said more than 2,000 people were demonstrating outside the sprawling US-run Bagram base at one stage.
The AFP photographer saw at least seven other protesters hit by rubber bullets, some of them bleeding.
Sediq Sediqqi, an interior ministry spokesman, said that by early afternoon the demonstration was under control and there was no further 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 said.
That was also brought under control and the crowd later dispersed, he said.
Last April, 10 people were killed and dozens of others were injured during days of unrest unleashed by the burning of a Koran by American pastor Terry Jones in Florida.
Gen Allen’s statement reflected concern over the impact of the latest incident in the country, where US troops have been fighting against a Taliban insurgency for more than 10 years and supporting President Hamid Karzai’s government.
“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.”
Gen Allen thanked “the local Afghan people who helped us identify the error, and who worked with us to immediately take corrective action”.
Last month, US officials scrambled to condemn four US soldiers shown in an online video urinating on the bloodied corpses of three Taliban insurgents.
The video, including one of the soldiers saying “Have a great day, buddy”, conjured up previous abuses committed by US troops during the decade-long war.