KABUL, Afghanistan — President Barack Obama apologized to Afghans on Thursday for the burning of Korans at a U.S. military base, trying to assuage rising anti-American sentiment as an Afghan soldier gunned down two American troops during another day of angry protests.
The U.S.-led military coalition says the Muslim holy books were sent by mistake to a garbage pit at Bagram Air Field and the case is under investigation. The explanation and apologies from U.S. officials have yet to calm outrage over the incident, which has also heightened tension between international troops and their Afghan partners.
Thousands of protesters — some shouting "Long live Islam!" and "Death to America!" — staged demonstrations across Afghanistan for a third day. At one demonstration outside a U.S. base in Khogyani, in the eastern province of Nangarhar, a protester wearing an Afghan army uniform opened fire, killing the two soldiers with the U.S.-led NATO coalition, and then fled into the crowd, officials said.
At other sites, demonstrators burned tires or American flags. Afghan police and international troops fired guns in the air to disperse the crowds. The protests sparked clashes with Afghan security forces that left at least five people dead. On Wednesday, six people were killed.
The civil unrest comes as Afghan President Hamid Karzai is trying to negotiate a long-term partnership agreement with the United States to govern the activities of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014, when most foreign combat troops will have left or taken on support roles.
Karzai called for calm until an investigation is completed, but the incident highlighted the fitful and often strained relationship of the two nations.
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One that Obama's apology to Karzai was "appropriate given the sensitivity" of the issue. He said the apology was part of a three-page letter to the Afghan leader. Presidential apologies are rare, but he noted that former White House press secretary Dana Perino apologized on behalf of President George W. Bush in 2008 after a U.S. serviceman shot a Koran.
In the letter, Obama expressed "regret and apologies over the incident in which religious materials were unintentionally mishandled," said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House.