KABUL, Afghanistan — The commander of U.S.-led international forces in Afghanistan apologized Tuesday after reports that American troops at Bagram Air Base had accidentally burned hundreds of copies of the Quran, sparking outrage among Afghans.
"I offer my sincere apologies for any offense this may have caused, to the president of Afghanistan, the government ... of Afghanistan, and most importantly, to the noble people of Afghanistan," Marine Gen. John R. Allen said in a statement.
The burning of the Quran and other Islamic religious materials sparked tense scenes at Bagram Air Base, a major coalition facility about 40 miles north of Kabul.
Ahmad Zaki Zahid, the head of the Parwan provincial council, said that around 1,200 Afghans gathered outside the base Tuesday morning to protest. A provincial delegation met with U.S. officials at the base to discuss the incident.
"We retrieved more than 80 half-burned Qurans," Zahid said.
It wasn't immediately clear why U.S. personnel had burned copies of the Quran. Allen said the religious materials "were inadvertently taken to an incineration facility at Bagram airfield."
"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."
Allen said he'd ordered an investigation, and had directed all coalition forces in Afghanistan to complete training in the proper handling of religious materials no later than March 3. It was the latest embarrassing incident involving U.S. troops in Afghanistan, coming weeks after four Marines were shown in a video urinating on corpses, which also prompted swift apologies from American officials in Afghanistan and Washington.
Pentagon officials said that despite being at war for more than a decade, the U.S. military had no regulations that specifically concerned the disposal of religious materials. Existing military orders demand, however, that troops respect the religious institutions and customs of their host nations.
The White House and the Pentagon also expressed regret at the incident, with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calling it "deeply unfortunate."
The U.N. special representative in Afghanistan, Jan Kubis, met Tuesday afternoon with Afghanistan's top Islamic scholar and said he'd stressed the U.N.'s deep respect for the Islamic faith and the tradition and cultures of Afghans. He described the incident as a "sad mistake that hurts the religious feelings of the people."
The speedy response of the U.S.-led coalition and the U.N. underscored concern here that the incident could escalate into nationwide protests. In 2005, a Newsweek report that U.S. guards at the Guantanamo Bay military prison had desecrated the Quran — in part by tearing pages and throwing them into the toilet — prompted days of protests in which at least 17 Afghans died. The Pentagon said it had conducted an investigation but couldn't confirm the Newsweek account.
The Taliban condemned the latest incident, and called on human rights organizations to "prevent such barbaric actions by the Americans."
Zahid warned that violent demonstrations were likely if the Afghan government and U.S. commanders didn't resolve the matter satisfactorily.
"We are trying to solve the issue in a peaceful way," Zahid said. "If those who committed the acts are not arrested, we should expect more violent demonstrations throughout the country."
(Safi is a McClatchy special correspondent. Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more coverage visit McClatchy's Afghanistan and Pakistan page.