KABUL Senior Afghan clerics said on Friday the burning of Korans at a NATO base last month was an "evil act" that must be punished, a demand that could deepen widespread public anger over the incident.
"The council strongly condemns this crime and inhumane, savage act by American troops by desecrating holy Korans," members of a council of clerics said after meeting President Hamid Karzai, according to a statement issued by his office.
"The council emphasized that the apology for this evil act can never be accepted. Those who committed this crime must be publicly tried and punished."
Despite apologies from President Barack Obama and other senior U.S. officials, the desecration of the Korans at Bagram air base ignited a wave of anti-Western fury across Afghanistan, including protests that killed 30 people.
The Koran burnings are a setback to the Western campaign to win the hearts and minds of Afghans in order to weaken the Taliban and force the Muslim militant group to negotiate an end to the war now in its 11th year.
A joint investigation, conducted by U.S. military officials and members of the Karzai government, has concluded that five U.S. soldiers were involved in the incident on a NATO military base, officials said on condition of anonymity.
But the joint probe of the incident, one of three being conducted, did not provide specific recommendations on possible disciplinary action the soldiers might face, the officials said.
A separate U.S. Army probe, which has not yet been completed, may contain such recommendations.
The determination of the joint probe, which has not been released, that five soldiers were involved was first reported by the Washington Post.
Yet the statements on Friday by the Afghans clerics - reflecting Muslims' deep reverence for the Koran - suggests at least some Afghans will not be satisfied without a public trial.
U.S. officials have said that the Korans were confiscated from prisoners on the base and mistakenly discarded in an incinerator. Afghan laborers found charred remains.
A string of attacks on NATO troops by Afghan security forces followed the burnings.
The killing of two U.S. officers, allegedly by a police intelligence officer, in the heart of the heavily guarded Interior Ministry raised particular concern and cast fresh doubt over the effectiveness of Afghan security forces.
If their capabilities do not improve before foreign combat troops head home at the end of 2014, the country could face prolonged instability.
Obama and other Western leaders are hoping to decisively weaken the Taliban before most foreign combat troops withdraw by the end of 2014. The White House also wants to broker political negotiations between the Karzai government and the Taliban.
Yet Bagram, the air base where the Koran burnings took place, was a source of friction between the United States and Karzai's government long before the Korans were burned.
An Afghan government commission investigating abuse accusations at the largest U.S. jail in Afghanistan, located at Bagram, has said inmates reported being tortured and held without evidence.
Control over Afghans captured by U.S. forces is a major stumbling block in negotiations between Kabul and Washington on a strategic partnership agreement. NATO's night-time raids on Afghan homes, which Karzai objects to, are another point of contention.
The agreement would define the terms of any U.S. military presence after the end of 2014.
The senior clerics said the Koran burnings took place at Bagram because the administration of the prison at the facility, where the holy books had been located, did not treat religious material with respect.
"We strongly demand the closure of prisons run by foreigners," the clerics told Karzai during the meeting, his office said.
(Writing by Michael Georgy; additional reporting By Missy Ryan; Editing by Stacey Joyce)