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Thousands of Afghans vent fury outside US base over Quran burning

Thousands of Afghans protested against the unintentional burning of Qurans and other Islamic religious materials during trash disposal at an American air base.  NBC's Atia Abawi reports.

Updated at 2:40 p.m. ET: KABUL, Afghanistan -- Thousands of angry Afghans protested outside a U.S. military base on Tuesday, some hurling rocks and firing guns in the air, after reports surfaced that American troops had burned copies of the Quran and other religious items. 

The demonstrators — shouting "Die, die, foreigners!" — gathered outside Bagram airbase, an hour's drive north of the capital Kabul. Photographs taken by the AFP news agency outside the airbase, showed people firing slingshots and others holding charred copies of the Quran, Islam's holy book.

"The people are very angry. The mood is very negative," said Zia Ul Rahman, deputy provincial police chief. "Some are firing hunting guns in the air, but there have been no casualties."

"We Afghans don't want these Christians and infidels, they are the enemy of our soil, our honor and our Quran," said Haji Shirin, one of the protesters.

Qais Usyan / AFP - Getty Images

More than a decade after the beginning of the war, Afghanistan faces external pressure to reform as well as ongoing internal conflicts.

"I urge all Muslims to sacrifice themselves in order to pull out these troops from this soil."

U.S. helicopters fired flares to disperse the crowd.

Seeking to quickly tamp down the outrage, the White House apologized for the burning of Muslim holy books in a pile of garbage at Bagram.

PhotoBlog: Afghans besiege US base in protest over Quran burning

Press secretary Jay Carney said the "deeply unfortunate incident" doesn't reflect the respect the U.S. military has for the religious practices of the Afghan people.

Carney echoed military officials Tuesday in saying that the Quran burning happened unintentionally, and that an investigation was being undertaken to ensure it didn't happen again.

The top NATO general in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, also apologized. He said religious materials, including Qurans, that were identified for disposal were inadvertently taken to an incineration field at the airfield.

"Along with our apology to the Afghans is our certainty and assurance to them, that these kinds of incidents, when they do occur, will be corrected in the fastest and most appropriate manner possible," Allen said in a statement. "We've been shoulder to shoulder with the Afghans for a long time. We've been dying alongside the Afghans for a long time because we believe in them; we believe in their country, and we want to have every opportunity to give them a bright future."

Allen said he has also directed all coalition forces in Afghanistan to complete training in the proper handling of all religious materials by March 3.

A military official with knowledge of the incident told The Associated Press the Muslim holy books had been removed from a library at a nearby detention center because they contained extremist messages or inscriptions. He said it appeared the Qurans and other Islamic readings were being used to fuel extremism, and detainees apparently were leaving notes for one another inside them.

Thousands of Afghans rallied outside a U.S. military base over a report that foreign troops had improperly disposed of copies of the Quran, including some being burned. NBC's Natalie Morales reports.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the incident.


'Very angry'
Roshna Khalid, the provincial governor's spokeswoman, said Qurans were burned inside Bagram, citing accounts from local laborers.

"The laborers normally take the garbage outside and they found the remains of Qurans," she said.

Ahmad Zaki Zahed, chief of the provincial council, said U.S. military officials gave him about 30 Qurans and other religious books that were recovered before they were destroyed.

"Some are burned. Some are not burned," Zahed said, adding that the books were used by detainees once incarcerated at the base.

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The materials were in trash that two soldiers with the U.S.-led coalition transported in a truck late Monday night to a pit where garbage is burned on the base, according to Zahed, who spoke with five Afghans working at the pit.

He said that when the workers noticed the religious books in the trash, they stopped the disposal process.

Bagram also houses a prison for Afghans detained by American forces. The center 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.

Shah Marai / AFP - Getty Images

Afghan protesters throw stones toward U.S. soldiers standing at the gate of Bagram airbase during a protest Tuesday.

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Protests raged for three days across Afghanistan in April after a U.S. pastor burned a Quran 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.

Meanwhile, NATO said three coalition service members have been killed in a roadside bombing in southern Afghanistan. It did not give any other details about Tuesday's deaths.

Massoud Hossaini / AFP - Getty Images

A demonstrator holds a copy of the Quran allegedly set alight at Bagram airbase.

So far this year, 47 NATO service members have been killed in Afghanistan.

Earlier, NATO reported that a fourth service member died Tuesday as a result of a non-battle related injury, also in the south.

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The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.