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, 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."
"It was not a decision that was made because they were religious materials," Allen said. "It was not a decision that was made with respect to the faith of Islam. It was a mistake. It was an error. The moment we found out about it we immediately stopped and we intervened."
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 by March 3.
A Western military official with knowledge of the incident told the Associated Press it appeared that the Qurans and other Islamic readings in the library were being used to fuel extremism, and that detainees at Parwan Detention Facility, which adjoins Bagram, were writing on the documents to exchange extremist messages. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
The White House and the Pentagon also expressed regret at the incident, with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta calling it "deeply unfortunate."