KABUL - The burning of copies of the Noble Qur'an inside NATO's Bagram airbase has sent thousands of angry Afghans into the streets, threatening a public relations disaster for the US as it tries to pacify the country before withdrawing its combat troops by 2014.
"The laborers normally take the garbage outside and they found the remains of Qura'n," Roshna Khalid, the provincial governor's spokeswoman, told Reuters on Tuesday, February 21, citing accounts from local laborers.
Khalid confirmed that copies of the Muslim holy book had been burnt along other religious books inside Bagram airbase, about 60 kilometres (40 miles) north of Kabul.
Hearing the news, more than 2,000 Afghans protested outside Bagram airbase, the main US military base in Afghanistan.
Chanting "Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar" (God is Greater), protesters challenged guards at Bagram airbase who fired rubber bullets from a watchtower in a bid to disperse the crowd.
Hundreds of angry Afghans also protested in the capital Kabul as security forces dispatched reinforcements in a bid to stop the demonstrations from spiraling out of control in the fiercely conservative Muslim country.
"They are demonstrating over the burning of copies of the Qura'n inside the base," a local police official told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
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.
"The police have the crowd in control, it is not violent," police spokesman Ashamat Estanakzai told AFP.
Similar protests turned violent in Afghanistan in April after a US pastor burned the Noble Qura'n in Florida.
Eleven people were killed when demonstrators stormed a UN compound in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, including seven foreign UN workers.
Another riot in the southern city of Kandahar left nine dead and more than 80 wounded.
Attempting to contain the public fury, General John Allen, head of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), apologized and ordered a full investigation into the incident.
"When we learned of these actions, we immediately intervened and stopped them," General Allen said.
Gen. Allen said that the investigation would examine whether troops at Bagram airbase "improperly disposed of a large number of Islamic religious materials which included Qur`an".
The materials recovered will be properly handled by appropriate religious authorities, he said.
"We are thoroughly investigating the incident and we are taking steps to ensure this does not ever happen again. I assure youâ¦ I promise you â¦ this was not intentional in any way."
The NATO military official went to offer his "sincere apologies" for any offence this may have caused to the Afghan president, government and people.
"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 in a written statement as well as in a video released on a US military website.
Qur'an desecration has been an incendiary issue in Afghanistan and Iraq in past years.
Last January, eight Afghan demonstrators were killed and 13 others injured in protests after foreign troops reportedly desecrated the Qur'an during a raid.
In 2008, a US soldier was removed from Iraq after using a copy of the Qur'an as a target in a shooting practice, riddling the Muslim holy book with bullets.