KABUL - A gunman killed two American military advisers with shots to the back of the head Saturday inside a heavily guarded ministry building, and NATO ordered military workers out of Afghan ministries as protests raged for a fifth day over the burning of copies of the Quran at a U.S. army base.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the Interior Ministry attack, saying it was retaliation for the Quran burnings, after the U.S. servicemen - a lieutenant colonel and a major - were found dead on the floor of an office that only people who know a numerical combination can get into, Afghan and Western officials said.
The top commander of U.S. and NATO forces recalled all international military personnel from the ministries, an unprecedented action in the decade-long war that highlights the growing friction between Afghans and their foreign partners at a critical juncture in the war.
The U.S.-led coalition is trying to mentor and strengthen Afghan security forces so they can lead the fight against the Taliban, and foreign troops can go home. That mission, however, requires a measure of trust at a time when anti-Western sentiment is at an all-time high.
Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak called U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to apologize for the shooting and offer his condolences, Pentagon press secretary George Little said in a statement released in Washington.
"This act is unacceptable and the United States condemns it in the strongest possible terms," Little said.
Security is tight in the capital, which is covered in snow, and foreigners working at the U.S. Embassy and at international organizations have been banned from leaving their compounds.
U.S. officials said they were searching for the assailant.
The two American service members were found shot in the back of the head, according to Western officials. Authorities were poring over security camera video for clues, the Afghan official said.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid identified the shooter as one of their sympathizers, Abdul Rahman. He said an accomplice inside the ministry helped Rahman get inside the compound to kill the Americans in retaliation for the Quran burnings.
Little, the Pentagon press secretary, said Wardak indicated that President Hamid Karzai was assembling religious leaders and other senior Afghan officials to take urgent steps to protect coalition forces.
U.S. Gen. John Allen, top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, met with Afghan Interior Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi, who offered condolences to the families of the victims and his apologies, Little said.
Afghanistan's interior and defense ministers are expected in Washington this week.
Allen said he recalled all NATO personnel from the ministries "for obvious force protection reasons" but also said the alliance remains committed to its partnership with the Afghan government. NATO forces have advisers embedded in many Afghan ministries.
At least 28 people have been killed and hundreds wounded since Tuesday, when it first emerged that Qurans and other religious materials had been thrown into a fire pit used to burn garbage at Bagram Air Field.
Karzai has said that the Afghan people have a right to protest the Quran burnings, but he urged them to demonstrate peacefully and refrain from destroying property. In a statement on Saturday, Karzai urged Afghan security forces to be patient with the protesters.
Hundreds of demonstrators staged peaceful protests in Afghanistan, but ones in Laghman, Kunduz and Logar provinces turned violent.
US Toll in Afghanistan
Source: Department of Defense