Afghan protesters in front of Bagram Air Base during an anti-U.S. demonstration, Feb. 21, 2012.
KABUL, Afghanistan - The commander of international troops in Afghanistan has ordered an investigation into what NATO says was improper disposal of a large number of Islamic religious materials, including Qurans.
U.S. Gen. John Allen insists the incident at Bagram Air Field was not intentional. He apologized profusely for it in a statement released Tuesday morning.
"We are thoroughly investigating the incident and we are taking steps to ensure this does not ever happen again. I assure you ... I promise you ... this was NOT intentional in any way," read the statement sent to CBS News and other media outlets.
"I offer my 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."
Allen went on to thank "local Afghan people" who he said brought the incorrect action to the attention of military commanders.
CBS News Kabul bureau chief Fazul Rahim says an eyewitness reported hundreds of Afghans had gathered outside the base to protest against the destruction of materials, including the Muslim holy book, which is highly offensive to the Afghan people.
A CBS News crew traveled to Bagram and saw the remnants of several tires which were set on fire at an entrance gate to the sprawling U.S. base, and as many as several hundred protesters were still chanting at another gate, but appeared to be dispersing.
While the statement from Allen did not make it clear exactly how the materials were improperly disposed of, the crowd gathered outside Bagram denounced the apparent burning of Qurans.
Ahmad Kabir, the chief of Bagram district of Parwan province where the base is located, said the demonstrators were all people who work inside the base and that some claimed they had seen pieces of a Quran that was burned inside the base.
"I haven't seen it myself and we are talking to them and are investigating to see if is true," Kabir said. "The protesters are nervous over these claims of the holy book being burned."
Kabir called for calm.
"We will investigate and we are asking everyone to calm down and relax," he said, adding that the incident was being probed by local Afghan and police officials and the local provincial council.
Police said a similar protest on Tuesday just east of Kabul ended peacefully.
Allen says that when the American-led coalition learned of the actions, it intervened and stopped it.
He says some materials were recovered and would be handled by religious authorities.
U.S. and NATO military officials will be keen to avoid an eruption of anger in Afghanistan along the lines of violent protests and riots which followed the burning of a Quran last year by a pastor in Florida.
That event, organized by Pastor Terry Jones and dubbed "Burn a Quran Day," sparked protests against a U.N. office in Mazar-I-Sharif and elsewhere in Afghanistan which turned deadly.