President 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 American 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, 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.
GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich expressed outrage over the U.S. apology.
Campaigning in Washington state, Gingrich said Karzai owes the United States an apology for the shootings of U.S. troops and that the Afghans "do not deserve the apology of the United States."
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.
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.
Coalition forces and international agencies were bracing for further mass demonstrations today, the Muslim holy day.
U.S. and Afghan investigators are probing the incident at Bagram, but Pentagon officials backed off of a promise to release a statement of their findings Thursday, saying the inquiry wasn't complete.
Some initial reports -- as yet unconfirmed -- had 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.