KABUL, Afghanistan — President Barack Obama apologized Thursday for the accidental burning of Qurans by U.S. forces in Afghanistan as anti-American demonstrations raged for a third consecutive day, leaving two NATO troops and at least five Afghans dead and 26 Afghans wounded nationwide.
At one such demonstration outside a U.S. base in Khogyani, in the eastern province of Nangarhar, a protester who was wearing an Afghan army uniform opened fire, killing the two soldiers with the U.S.-led NATO coalition, officials said.
Adding to a chorus of profuse apologies from U.S. officials over the burning incident, Obama wrote a three-page letter to Afghan President Hamid Karzai on bilateral relations that included "an expression of his regret and apologies for the inappropriate and inadvertent mishandling of religious materials," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Karzai's office demanded that the coalition bring to justice as soon as possible those responsible for burning Qurans and other Islamic religious materials Monday at Bagram, a major air base north of Kabul used by American forces. The latest embarrassing incident to mar U.S. efforts to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, it has led to a series of demonstrations that could grow today, with large crowds expected to gather after weekly prayers.
Hundreds of Afghans reportedly demonstrated Thursday, occasionally clashing with Afghan security forces deployed to quell the unrest. Reports from provincial officials said that two Afghans were killed in Uruzgan province, in southern Afghanistan, and others died in Baghlan, Laghman and Nangarhar provinces.
A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition confirmed that two of its soldiers had died in eastern Afghanistan, but didn't release their nationalities. Ahmad Zia Abdulzai, a spokesman for the governor of Nangarhar, said that a protester in an Afghan national army uniform had opened fire on foreign and Afghan security forces and they fired back.
The Taliban's response
While the protests so far have appeared to be spontaneous outpourings of public anger, the Taliban ratcheted up their rhetoric Thursday, issuing a statement that encouraged Afghans to kill foreign troops and not to rely on "mere protests and empty slogans."
"Kill them, beat them, take them as prisoners and teach them such a lesson that they never summon the courage to abuse the holy Quran again," the Taliban statement said.
Nine Afghans died and dozens were wounded in anti-American demonstrations Wednesday. Coalition forces and international agencies were bracing for further mass demonstrations today, the Muslim holy day.
Reports suggest that protests might even spread to parts of Afghanistan where people historically have been well-disposed to foreign forces.
Residents of the central province of Bamiyan are mostly ethnic Hazaras who were persecuted by the predominantly Pashtun Taliban, and locals there have a good relationship with the New Zealand-led provincial reconstruction team. Still, there were calls in Bamiyan's provincial capital for people to demonstrate today outside the coalition base.
Coalition officials said that the Bamiyan base, like many other international military and civilian bases, would be effectively locked down today.
U.S. and Afghan investigators are probing the incident at Bagram, but in Washington, Pentagon officials backed off of a promise to release a statement of their findings Thursday, saying the inquiry wasn't complete. Some initial reports have suggested that a coalition commander ordered the Qurans and other materials destroyed because inmates at the Bagram detention facility were placing messages in them to one another, but coalition officials said the investigators hadn't confirmed that.
Ali Safi and Jon Stephenson are McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents. Nancy A. Youssef and Lesley Clark contributed.