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U.S. defense chief apologizes for ‘inappropriate treatment’ of Quran at Afghanistan airbase

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U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta apologized Tuesday for the “inappropriate treatment” of copies of the Quran at an American base in Afghanistan and promised a swift investigation.

Panetta’s statement came as protesters besieged the Bagram air base in Afghanistan following reports that NATO troops had burned the Muslim holy book.

The enraged crowd shouted “Death to Americans” and “Death to infidels” as guards responded by firing rubber bullets from a watchtower, said an AFP photographer, who was hit in the neck.

Hundreds of other people protested in the Afghan capital as security forces dispatched reinforcements in a bid to stop the demonstrations from spiraling out of control in the fiercely conservative Islamic country.

The defense secretary said he had been notified by the U.S. commander of the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, General John Allen, “of the deeply unfortunate incident involving the inappropriate treatment of religious materials, including the Quran, at Bagram Airbase.”

“He and I apologize to the Afghan people and disapprove of such conduct in the strongest possible terms,” Panetta said, adding that the actions did not represent the views of the U.S. military.

“I support General Allen’s swift and decisive action to investigate this matter jointly with the Afghan government,” he said.

“I will carefully review the final results of the investigation to ensure that we take all steps necessary and appropriate so that this never happens again.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai in a statement said he “strongly condemns the burning of copies of the Quran by American soldiers” and had assigned a delegation to investigate the incident.

The Taliban, who have been waging a decade-long insurgency against Karzai’s Western-backed government, also condemned the Quran burning.

“Since the invasion of Afghanistan by the Americans, it is the 10th time they have taken such savage action to desecrate the sacred beliefs of Muslims,” the Taliban said in a statement, calling for human rights organizations to “take action” to prevent such acts and “punish those criminals involved.”