Nearly 3,000 irate protesters massed and hurled stones at the main US base in Afghanistan yesterday after reports that foreign soldiers had burned copies of Islam's holy book, the Koran, in a pile of rubbish.
The incident – the latest in a series of public relations disasters by international troops that have caused anger and offence in equal measure – prompted a swift and grovelling apology from the commander of foreign forces in the country, who immediately ordered an investigation into the matter.
The demonstration outside Bagram airbase in Parwan province, about an hour's drive north of Kabul, started during the night on Monday and gathered momentum throughout yesterday after news spread during morning prayers that Afghan workers employed at the airbase had discovered religious materials, included charred copied of the Koran, in a burn pit at the base. Angered by the slight, the protesters chanted "Death to America", "Death to foreigners" and "God is great".
The mob was on the brink of turning violent, but the Afghan police got the situation under control, according to Zia ul Rahman, the deputy provincial police chief. US guards at the base shot rubber bullets and helicopters fired flares to disperse the crowd, leaving 13 people with minor injuries, Mr Rahman said. The International Security Assistance Force's top commander, General John Allen, apologised for the incident, saying he had ordered an inquiry into a report "that Isaf personnel at Bagram airbase improperly disposed of a large number of religious material which included Korans".
In a written statement, he said: "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. When we learned of these actions, we immediately intervened and stopped them. This was not intentional in any way."
He added: "I would like to thank the Afghan people who helped us identify the error, and who worked with us to immediately take corrective action."
Officials admitted that materials had been improperly disposed of, but they refused to confirm whether anything had been burned. Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson said: "That is the main point of the investigation. Materials were brought to the burn pit and the question is was anything burned? And were any Korans burned?"
He added that the Afghan Ministry of Interior and Muslim authorities were brought in to secure the evidence and make the investigation as open to the Afghan people as possible.
General Allen's words failed to prevent a demonstration in Kabul, where about 300 people gathered. Western forces are conscious of how much damage such an incident can do. In April last year, protests raged for three days after Florida pastor Terry Jones burned a Koran at his church. An angry crowd stormed a United Nations compound in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, killing 12 people.
At Bagram yesterday, one protester, who asked not to be named because he worked at the base, told The Independent: "This is an insult to my religion and to my holy book. I cannot tolerate this and that is why I am here to protest and raise my voice. This is not first time; they have been doing this many times. We want them to be tried for this."
Afghans are particularly sensitive to any perceived slight by foreign troops, having grown weary of a war that is now in its 11th year, civilian casualties and night raids. Last month, there was a furore over a video showing four US Marines urinating on the body of a dead insurgent. Afghans, who may have felt no love for the Taliban, nevertheless thought it showed disregard for a fellow Muslim.
Flashpoints: Nato deployments
April 2011 At least 12 people, including seven UN workers, are killed in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, as well as 10 others in Kandahar, after an American pastor in Florida sets fire to a Koran.
November 2011 A Nato air strike reportedly kills six children.
January 2012 A video shows four US Marines urinating on three corpses.
February 2012 It emerges that the number of civilians killed in the conflict rose by 8 per cent last year, to 3,021. Women and children accounted for around 30 per cent of deaths in the latter half of the year.