KABUL, Afghanistan, Feb. 21 (UPI) -- Furious crowds gathered outside Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan after reports of religious items, including copies of the Koran, being burned, witnesses said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta Tuesday joined the NATO commander in Afghanistan in apologizing for the improper disposal of the religious items. The items were inadvertently taken to an incineration facility.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters during his daily briefing in Washington he was confident President Obama had been briefed on the "deeply unfortunate incident," and "we apologize to the Afghan people and disapprove of such conduct in the strongest possible terms."
"I would simply say that it's regrettable," Carney said. "It does not represent the views of our military. And it certainly does not represent the conduct of our men and women in uniform and -- or our general respect for the religious practices and beliefs of the Afghan people."
Carney added the president had spoken to Afghan President Hamid Karzai by phone Monday concerning "issues of reconciliation."
Panetta said Gen. John R. Allen, International Security Assistance Force commander, had notified him of the incident.
"He and I apologize to the Afghan people and disapprove of such conduct in the strongest possible terms," Panetta said in a written statement. "These actions do not represent the views of the United States military. We honor and respect the religious practices of the Afghan people, without exception."
Panetta said the matter will be investigated jointly with the Afghan government.
"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," he said.
Allen said all ISAF personnel have been ordered to complete training in the proper handling of religious materials within the next two weeks.
"When we learned of these actions, we immediately intervened and stopped them," he said. "The materials recovered will be properly handled by appropriate religious authorities."
Allen said, "I assure you … I promise you … this was not intentional in any way."
The training will include the identification of religious materials, their significance, and correct handling and storage, he said.
A crowd outside the gates of Bagram shouted "Death to America" and "We don't want them anymore," witnesses contacted by The New York Times said. Witnesses also reported gunfire could be heard and security forces fired rubber bullets.
Allen offered his "sincere apologies for any offense this may have caused to the president of Afghanistan, the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and most importantly, to the noble people of Afghanistan."
He also thanked local Afghan people who helped identify the error and who worked with troops to "immediately take corrective action."
"On behalf of the entire International Security Assistance Force, I extend my sincerest apologies to the people of Afghanistan," Allen said. "To assist us in ensuring we have uncovered all the facts, I've also asked our partners from the Afghan Ministry of Interior to assist us with this investigation."