UN in Afghanistan says Koran burners should be punished

KABUL Thu Mar 1, 2012 4:47pm IST

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KABUL (Reuters) - The United Nations joined Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday in calling on the U.S. military to take disciplinary action against those who burned copies of the Koran at a NATO air base, calling the incident a "grave mistake".

Despite an apology from U.S. President Barack Obama, the burning of the Muslim holy book at the Bagram base north of the capital ignited a wave of anti-Western fury across the country.

At least 30 people were killed in protests, including two American soldiers who were killed by an Afghan soldier who joined the demonstrations.

"After the first step of a profound apology, there must be a second step ... of disciplinary action," Jan Kubis, special representative for the U.N. secretary-general in Afghanistan, told a news conference.

"Only after this, after such a disciplinary action, can the international forces say 'yes, we're sincere in our apology'," added Kubis, without elaborating on what action should be taken.

Obama, in a letter of apology to Karzai last week, said the burning of copies of the Koran had been "inadvertent" and an "error".

Distancing the United Nations from the anti-Western uproar, Kubis lamented the attack on a U.N. compound in Kunduz province in the north last week, which angry demonstrators charged with weapons. U.N. staff was relocated around the country.

"We were not the ones who desecrated the holy Koran," Kubis said. "We deeply, deeply, profoundly respect Islam."

In some of the toughest language yet from an international organisation over the Koran burnings, Kubis added:

"We were very hurt that the international military allowed the desecration of the Koran. We rejected and condemned this act, it doesn't matter that it was a mistake.".

The call from the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan for action come after Karzai demanded the Koran burners -- whom he said were American soldiers -- be put on public trial and punished.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) says any disciplinary action "deemed necessary" would be taken by U.S. authorities after a thorough review of the facts in an investigation.

Results from separate investigations by NATO and Afghan authorities into the Koran burnings last month are expected soon. New protests could erupt if the investigation teams are seen as too soft on the Koran burners.

The Koran desecrations are also believed to have spurred a 25-year-old policeman to kill two high-ranking American officers inside the Interior Ministry.

The attack has raised questions about NATO's strategy of replacing large combat unit with advisers as the alliance tries to wind down the war.

(Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Michael Georgy and Robert Birsel)

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