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Clashes Over Quran Burnings at U.S. Base in Afghanistan Turn Deadly

February 22, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Afghanistan was tense with protests and religious fury today, the continuing fallout over the burning of Korans by U.S. troops. At least seven people died in clashes with Afghan security forces.

Hundreds of angry Afghans streamed to protest sites across the country. They set fires, threw stones and voiced their rage at NATO and American forces.

ABDUL QAYOOM, Afghanistan (through translator): These occupiers who disrespected the Koran many times, in Bagram, in Guantanamo and in other places, should leave Afghanistan. They are doing this to insult Islam and Muslims. We cannot tolerate this insult.

JEFFREY BROWN: In some places, the protests turned violent. Police said they were fired upon and returned fire.

It all started Monday night north of Kabul. Afghan workers at Bagram Air Base saw U.S. soldiers putting Korans and other religious materials from a nearby prison into a burn pit for trash. By tradition, the Koran, a holy text, is disposed of with respect, including by burial in sacred caves.

As the protests began Tuesday, the overall NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. John Allen, quickly issued a public apology.

LT. GEN. JOHN ALLEN, International Security Assistance Forces: We are thoroughly investigating the incident. We are taking steps to ensure this doesn’t ever happen again. I assure you, I promise you, this was not intentional in any way. And I offer my sincere apologies for any offense this may have caused.

JEFFREY BROWN: At a briefing today, German Gen. Carsten Jacobson, speaking for NATO, said the investigation would be thorough.

BRIG. GEN. CARSTEN JACOBSON, NATO-ISAF: We have seen Korans that were partly charred. It is a very vital part of the investigation that we find out what was the material, what was the reason for the decision to dispose of it, who gave the orders, what was the chain, how did the material then go to the burn pit, and what actually happened at the burn pit.

JEFFREY BROWN: For his part, Afghan President Hamid Karzai urged calm today, saying, “Protests are the right of the people, but I ask my countrymen to avoid violence.”

Nonetheless, the protesters’ fury showed no sign of abating. A gathering outside Camp Phoenix, a NATO base, essentially shut down the only road linking Kabul and Jalalabad.