(Adds delivery of letter in fourth paragraph.)
Feb. 23 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama apologized for the burning of Korans on a U.S. air base in Afghanistan as Afghans and NATO troops died in a third day of riots over the treatment of the Islamic scripture.
At least five deaths raised the riots’ Afghan death toll to 12, according to provincial officials reached by phone from Kabul. An Afghan in an army uniform killed two soldiers of the U.S.-led coalition force in Afghanistan, a statement from its headquarters said.
Obama wrote to Afghan President Hamid Karzai that “I wish to express my deep regret for the reported incident” in which personnel at the Bagram air base threw copies of the Koran and other books into a burning rubbish pile. “I extend to you and the Afghan people my sincere apologies,” Obama wrote, according to a statement from Karzai’s office.
“We will take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, to include holding accountable those responsible,” Obama said in a letter delivered by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
The apology was part of a broader three-page letter to Karzai and “was absolutely the right thing to do” given the sensitivities involved and concern about the safety of U.S. personnel in the region, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters traveling with Obama to an event in Florida.
Carney cited President George W. Bush’s apology to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2008 after an incident in which a U.S. soldier shot a copy of the Koran during target practice in Iraq.
Taliban leaders called on Afghans to ignore the apologies and step up attacks against Americans.
“The Muslim Afghan nation must not be deceived by their superficial apologies and must continue seeking revenge,” the Taliban leadership said in a statement e-mailed by Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman.
An Afghan in an army uniform shot two U.S. soldiers as hundreds of protesters were besieging their base in the eastern province of Nangarhar, said Ahmed Zia Abdulzai, the provincial government spokesman. It wasn’t clear whether the soldiers shot in that incident were the two NATO troops killed because NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, said in a statement that its policy prevented it from releasing the nationality of its casualties.
The U.S. embassy continued to restrict movements of its staff because of the risk of attack by Afghans angered at what protesters say was a desecration of the Muslim holy book.
Protests or riots were reported across the country. Local officials confirmed the deaths of two people in Nangarhar, two in the central province of Uruzgan, and one in the north, in Baghlan province.
Karzai appealed for calm yesterday, asking people to await the outcome of the investigation. NATO officials have promised to prosecute perpetrators of the burning “through an open trial, as soon as possible,” according to an e-mailed statement from Karzai’s press office today.
A German ISAF officer, Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson, told reporters yesterday that the force hoped to issue as statement as early as today on how the incident unfolded. George Little, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said today that he expected results of the inquiry to be made public “within days” of its completion.
The violence is the second time in a year that riots have erupted across Afghanistan over the perceived desecration of the Koran by Americans. The burning of a Koran by a pastor in Florida in March led to four days of riots in which 24 people died, including two U.S. soldiers shot by an Afghan policeman.
Evidence so far indicates that no malice was intended in the Koran-burning at the air base, Doug Wilson, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary for public affairs, said today.
“We do not believe that this was something where those involved intended to burn the Koran as a religious document, Wilson said. ‘‘This was not Florida.’’
The U.S.-led force in Afghanistan and other westerners often underestimate the reverence of Afghans and other Muslims for the Koran, according to Sultan Shahin, an Indian analyst who runs New Age Islam, a website on Muslim and interfaith affairs.
ISAF’s commander, U.S. Marine General John Allen, has ordered training for all troops in ‘‘the proper handling of religious materials.’’
Little rejected the idea that the Koran burnings reflected a pattern of insensitive behavior by U.S. troops.
‘‘After 10 years, incidents such as this have been extremely rare,’’ he said. ‘‘No matter how serious this was, no one should necessarily extrapolate a broader trend about how our armed forces in Afghanistan are poised to treat religious and cultural materials.’’
--With assistance from James Rupert in New Delhi and Roger Runningen, Viola Gienger and Tony Capaccio in Washington. Editors: Larry Liebert, Terry Atlas
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