A gunman killed two American military advisers with shots to the back of the head Saturday in a heavily guarded Afghan ministry building, and NATO ordered military workers out of all the country's ministries as protests raged for a fifth day over the burning of copies of the Quran at a U.S. army base.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the Interior Ministry attack, saying it was retaliation for the Quran burnings, after the U.S. servicemen -- a lieutenant colonel and a major -- were found dead in an office that only people who know a combination can get into, Afghan and Western officials said.
The top commander of U.S. and NATO forces recalled all international military personnel from the ministries, an unprecedented action in the decade-long war that highlights the growing friction between Afghans and their foreign partners at a critical juncture in the war.
The U.S.-led coalition is trying to mentor and strengthen Afghan security forces so they can lead the fight against the Taliban and foreign troops can go home. That mission, however, requires a measure of trust at a time when anti-Western sentiment is at an all-time high.
Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak called U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to apologize for the shooting and offer his condolences, Pentagon press secretary George Little said.
"This act is unacceptable, and the United States condemns it in the strongest possible terms," Little said.
Security is tight in the capital, and foreigners working at the U.S. Embassy and at international organizations have been banned from leaving their compounds.
U.S. officials said they were searching for the assailant, who has not been identified by name or nationality.
The two American service members were found by another foreigner who went into the room, according to the Afghan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. They were shot in the back of the head, according to Western officials, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. Authorities were poring over security camera video for clues, the Afghan official said.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid identified the shooter as Abdul Rahman. He said an accomplice inside the ministry helped Rahman get inside the compound to kill the Americans in retaliation for the Quran burnings.
"After the attack, Rahman informed us by telephone that he was able to kill four high-ranking American advisers," Mujahid said. The Taliban often inflates death tolls and sometimes claims responsibility for killings it did not conduct.
Little said Wardak indicated that President Hamid Karzai was assembling religious leaders and other senior Afghan officials to take urgent steps to protect coalition forces.
He said U.S. Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, met with Interior Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi.
Allen said he recalled all NATO personnel from the ministries "for obvious force protection reasons" but also said the alliance remains committed to its partnership with the Afghan government. NATO forces have advisers embedded in many Afghan ministries. The advisers are helping to develop the ministries so that Afghans can take the lead by the end of 2014, when foreign combat forces are to transfer control of security to Afghan security forces.
At least 28 people have been killed and hundreds wounded since Tuesday, when it emerged that Qurans and other religious materials had been thrown into a fire pit used to burn garbage at Bagram Air Field, a U.S. base north of Kabul.
President Obama and other U.S. officials have apologized for what they said was a mistake, but the deadly protests continued.
An Afghan soldier turned his gun on foreign troops, killing two U.S. soldiers, during one riot outside a U.S. base in Nangarhar province Thursday. The Defense Department said the bodies of Cpl. T.J. Conrad of Roanoke, Va., and Sgt. Joshua Born of Niceville, Fla., were returned to Dover Air Force Base.