President Barack Obama has apologised to the Afghan people for the burning of copies of the Koran at a US military base in Bagram.
The apology follows three days of violent protests in the country in response to the incident which has left several protesters dead and culminated in the killing of two US soldiers by a man in an Afghan army uniform.
The Afghans' furious response to the Koran burning reflected the anger at what they perceive as foreign forces' disrespect for Afghan laws and culture.
In a letter sent to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Mr Obama expressed his administration's "regret and apologies over the incident in which religious materials were unintentionally mishandled".
Mr Karzai's office said Mr Obama called the Koran burnings "inadvertent", adding that the US "will take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, to include holding accountable those responsible".
US apologies for the desecration – and an appeal from Mr Karzai for calm – have failed to temper the anger of Afghans, who staged rallies in seven provinces yesterday, sparking clashes with Afghan police and security forces that left at least five demonstrators dead. Seven protesters were killed in clashes on Wednesday.
The two Nato service members were killed in eastern Afghanistan by a man dressed in an Afghan army uniform. Both soldiers were Americans, according to a US official.
Mohammad Hassan, an official in Nangarhar province where the shooting took place, said the two Americans were shot by an Afghan soldier after soldiers fired in the air to disperse protesters outside a US base in the Khogyani district. Two protesters were also killed in the ensuing gunfire, Afghan officials said.
The Taliban yesterday called on Afghans to attack foreign troops, and its spokesman has issued a statement ordering its commanders to embrace and protect the families of any Afghan policeman or soldier who turns his gun on foreign troops. "Call them heroes," the Taliban spokesman said.
The riots erupted on Tuesday after Afghan workers at the main American military base, Bagram Air Field, saw soldiers dumping books in a pit where garbage is burned and noticed Korans and other religious material among the trash. The top US and Nato commander, General John Allen, quickly issued an apology and telephoned Mr Karzai and major news organisations to explain that a collection of religious materials, including Korans, had mistakenly been sent to be incinerated. As soon as someone realised what they were burning, they stopped and retrieved what was left, General Allen said.
Four copies of the Koran were burned before the incineration was halted, according to initial Afghan government reports.