February 25, 2012 at 8:54 PM CST - Updated June 26 at 3:53 PM
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A gunman killed two American military advisers inside a heavily guarded government building in the heart of Kabul Saturday as protests over the burning of the Muslim holy book at a U.S. base raged across the country for a fifth day.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was retaliation for the Quran burnings, and the NATO commander recalled all international military personnel working in Afghan ministries in the capital.
The two advisers, including a lieutenant colonel and a major, were shot in the back of the head, according to Western officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information.
U.S. officials said the assailant — who has not been identified by name or nationality — remained at large and a manhunt was under way.
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.
"This act is unacceptable and the United States condemns it in the strongest possible terms," Little said.
Little said that Wardak indicated that President Hamid Karzai was assembling religious leaders, parliamentarians, Supreme Court justices and other senior Afghan officials to take urgent steps to protect coalition forces. Little also said U.S. Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, met with Afghan Interior Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi, who offered both his condolences to the families of the victims and his apologies.
"The United States remains dedicated to working with the Afghan people against the common threat of violent extremism and to build an Afghanistan that can secure and govern itself," Little said.
An apology from President Barack Obama has failed to quell public outrage over what NATO insisted was an accidental desecration of the Quran. 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, a large U.S. base north of Kabul.
Among those dead were two U.S. soldiers who were killed Thursday by one of their Afghan counterparts while a riot raged outside their base in the eastern province of Nangarhar.
Allen said he recalled all NATO personnel from the ministries "for obvious force protection reasons" but the alliance remains committed to its partnership with the Afghan government.
He said NATO is investigating Saturday's shooting and will pursue all leads to find the person responsible for the attack.
"The perpetrator of this attack is a coward whose actions will not go unanswered," Allen said.
NATO forces have advisers embedded in many Afghan ministries, both as trainers and to help manage the transition to Afghan control and foreign forces prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014. The Afghan Interior Ministry oversees all of the country's police, so has numerous NATO advisers.
Two Afghan officials said the ministry shooting did not involve any Afghans. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a NATO incident. One of the officials noted that the shooting occurred inside a secure room at the ministry that Afghan staff do not have access to.
NATO confirmed that two service members were killed, but spokesman Lt. Col Jimmie Cummings said "initial reports say it was not a Western shooter." He declined to provide further information.
A U.S. official in Washington confirmed that the two killed were Americans. The official spoke anonymously because the information has not been publicly released.
Tensions between the Afghans and the Americans already were high following the Quran burnings. Anti-American sentiment has been on the rise in the war-weary country, and several foreign troops have been killed by Afghan soldiers in recent months. Some of those shootings have been blamed on personal hostilities, while others have been attributed to Taliban infiltrators.
In a statement, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the gunman was an insurgent named Abdul Rahman. He said an accomplice inside the ministry helped him get inside the compound. He said the killings were a planned response to the Quran burnings.
"After the attack, Rahman informed us by telephone that he was able to kill four high-ranking American advisers," Mujahid said. The Taliban frequently exaggerate casualty claims.
In Kunduz, the capital of Kunduz province in northeast Afghanistan, more than 1,000 protesters demonstrated against the Quran burnings. At first they were peaceful, but as the protest continued they began throwing stones at government buildings and a U.N. office, said Sarwer Hussaini, a spokesman for the provincial police. He said the police were firing into the air to try to disperse the crowd.
Dr. Saad Mukhtar, health department director in Kunduz, said at least three protesters died and 50 others were injured during the melee.
The U.N. confirmed in a statement that its Kunduz compound was attacked, but said all its staff in Kunduz and in the rest of the country were unhurt and safe.
Associated Press writers Patrick Quinn in Kabul and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.