* Top Nato general issues apology to Afghan government,
* U.S. helicopters fire flares to break up protests
(Adds Taliban reaction)
By Samar Zwak
BAGRAM, Afghanistan, Feb 21 (Reuters) - About 2,000
Afghans protested outside the main U.S. military base in
Afghanistan on Tuesday over a report that foreign soldiers
improperly disposed of copies of the Koran.
U.S. helicopters fired flares to try to break up as many as
2,000 demonstrators who massed outside several gates to the
base, chanting anti-foreigner slogans and throwing stones.
Roshna Khalid, the provincial governor's spokeswoman, said
copies of the Muslim holy book had been burnt inside Bagram
airbase, an hour's drive north of the capital Kabul, citing
accounts from local labourers.
"The labourers normally take the garbage outside and they
found the remains of Korans," Khalid said.
NATO's top general in Afghanistan attempted to contain fury
over the incident, which could be a public relations disaster
for the U.S. military as it tries to pacify the country ahead of
the withdrawal of foreign combat troops in 2014.
"When we learned of these actions, we immediately intervened
and stopped them. The materials recovered will be properly
handled by appropriate religious authorities," said General John
Allen, head of the International Security Assistance Force
(ISAF), in a written statement, as well as in a video released
on a U.S. military website.
"This was NOT intentional in any way."
Allen did not provide details on the incident.
Reuters reporters at the scene said there were about 2,000
"We Afghans don't want these Christians and infidels, they
are the enemy of our soil, our honor and our Koran," said Haji
Shirin, one of the protesters.
"I urge all Muslims to sacrifice themselves in order to pull
out these troops from this soil."
The Afghan Taliban also strongly condemned the
"Since the invasion of Afghanistan by the animal Americans,
this is almost the 10th time that they have degraded the holiest
values of Muslims," said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in
an emailed statement.
Bagram also houses a prison for Afghans detained by American
forces. The centre has caused resentment among Afghans because
of reports of torture and ill-treatment of suspected Taliban
prisoners, with President Hamid Karzai demanding the transfer of
prisoners to Afghan security.
Winning the hearts and minds of Afghans is critical to U.S.
efforts to defeating the Taliban, but critics say Western forces
often fail to grasp Afghanistan's religious and cultural
Allen also offered an apology to the government and people
of the country.
"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," said Allen.
But the apology did little to ease anger. The Koran is the
holy book of Islam any hint that Western forces are showing it
disrespect could deepen resentment over their presence in
"We want them out of our country now," said Zmari, 30, a
protester who has a shop near to the base .
Protests raged for three days across Afghanistan in April
last year after a U.S. pastor burned a Koran in Florida.
Eleven people were killed when demonstrators stormed a U.N.
compound in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, including seven
foreign U.N. workers. Another riot in the southern city of
Kandahar left nine dead and more than 80 wounded.
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni and Hamid Shalizi in
KABUL; Writing by Michael Georgy and Rob Taylor; Editing by)
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