BAGRAM, Afghanistan — As thousands of angry Afghans flung rocks at NATO’s largest military base in Afghanistan yesterday, American officials sought to quell a widening furor over what they said was the accidental incineration by US military personnel of copies of the Islamic holy book.
The protests erupted early yesterday, after Afghans working at Bagram air base told local residents that a number of copies of the Koran had been burned. When they carried out the charred pages, waving the evidence in the air, the crowd grew larger and more defiant.
Among those chanting “long live Islam’’ and “death to America’’ were some of the 5,000 Afghans who have worked inside the base for years. General John R. Allen, the top US commander in Afghanistan, was quick to express contrition for the incident, which officials worried could incite violence across the country.
US officials said the books were mistakenly sent with a pile of trash to be disposed of before being identified by several Afghans. Although the initial protests were concentrated largely around the Bagram base, the charred remains of Korans were sent promptly to Kabul, where President Hamid Karzai and other top Afghan officials will decide how to respond to the incident.
“These people must be punished,’’ said Qari Ghulam Mustafa, a top religious official from Parwan province, where Bagram is located. He carried a stack of 10 blackened Korans on his lap as he and others traveled to the capital in a white hatchback. He said nearly 100 more books were damaged.
“If the Americans ever deny that they did this, we will show them these pages,’’ said Mullah Abdul Rahim Shah Agha, the head of Parwan ulema council, or Muslim clerical body.
The apologies from Allen and top Obama administration officials were among the most profuse of the decade-long war. But there was no immediate indication that they would calm unrest that has turned explosive in the past, notably last April when deadly protests broke out over a case of Koran-burning in Florida.
“When we learned of these actions, we immediately intervened and stopped them,’’ Allen said in a statement. “We are taking steps to ensure this does not ever happen again. I assure you . . . I promise you . . . this was NOT intentional in any way.’’
The United States faces an enormous challenge in withdrawing its troops over the next two years while attempting to protect hard-won gains and facilitate a delicate peace process between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents. With so little margin for error, yesterday’s incident could threaten the relationship on which US military and diplomatic strategies depend.
US and Afghan officials expressed concerns about the prospect of unrest in coming days.
The US Embassy in Kabul warned American citizens, “Past demonstrations in Afghanistan have escalated into violent attacks on Western targets of opportunity.’’
The incident also could complicate relations between NATO forces and the Afghans who perform a variety of nonmilitary functions on bases. The hundreds of Bagram employees who were among the protesters will now have to decide whether to leave their jobs or continue working while disguising their antipathy.
“The people who do this are our enemies,’’ said a 27-year-old who has worked at a warehouse on the base for two years. “How could I ever work for them again?’’
Another Bagram employee who joined the protest said, “Whoever goes back to work will be killed. They’ll think of us as traitors.’’
More than 3,000 people were involved in yesterday’s protests. Afghan and Western security forces blocked roads on the way to the base and instructed local employees to stay home. But when they heard about the incident, the workers arrived at the base’s front gate in droves.
Rumors about the incident - and American motives - circulated through the crowd. In Kabul, 30 miles to the south, even top Afghan officials struggled to understand what had happened.
General Ahmad Amin Naseeb, director of the Afghan army’s religious and cultural affairs department, said he had been told “that the international troops have burned and thrown copies of the Koran into the dustbins.’’
In his second statement of the day, Allen announced that all NATO forces in Afghanistan would complete training in the proper handling of religious materials by March 3.
NATO said religious materials, including Korans “identified for disposal,’’ were collected at the Parwan Detention Facility, a prison next to the air base, and “were inadvertently taken to an incineration facility at Bagram airfield’’ Sunday night.
A Western military official said several hundred Islamic publications, including Korans, were removed from the prison library because some had extremist content and others contained radical messages that detainees were writing to each other, the Associated Press reported. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the texts were charred but not destroyed.