Anger over Quran burning spreads in Afghanistan; 9 dead

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Anger over the burning of the Muslim holy book at a Florida church fueled a second day of deadly violence half a world away in Afghanistan, where demonstrators set cars and shops ablaze Saturday in a riot that killed nine protesters, officials said.

The church’s desecration of the Quran nearly two weeks ago has outraged millions of Muslims and others worldwide, fueling anti-American sentiment that is further straining ties between the Afghan government and the West.

The uproar even brought violence to the normally peaceful city of Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan on Friday, where a crowd of protesters — apparently infiltrated by insurgents — stormed a U.N. compound in an outpouring that left four Afghan protesters and seven foreign U.N. employees dead.

In an unrelated attack that nonetheless demonstrated the kind of violence plaguing Afghanistan nearly a decade after the U.S. invaded to oust the Taliban and hunt al-Qaida, two suicide attackers disguised as women in blue burqas blew themselves up and a third was gunned down at a NATO base on the outskirts of Kabul.

The Quran was burned March 20, but many Afghans only found out about it when Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the desecration four days later. The burning took place at the Dove Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, the same church where the Rev. Terry Jones had threatened to destroy a copy of the holy book last year but initially backed down.

On Saturday, hundreds of Afghans carrying long sticks and holding copies of the Quran over their heads marched through Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan and the cradle of the insurgency. The crackle of gunfire could be heard throughout the city, which was blanketed by thick black smoke.

Security forces shot in the air to disperse the crowd, said Zalmai Ayubi, a spokesman for the provincial governor. It’s unclear how the protesters were slain, he said.

The governor’s office in Kandahar province issued a statement saying that nine protesters were killed and 81 others were injured in the demonstration that turned into a riot. Seventeen people, including seven armed men, have been arrested, the statement said.

The governor’s office claims demonstrators were incited by extremists who joined the group and set property ablaze.

“Some wicked and destructive people placed themselves amongst the protesters and started rioting throughout the entire Kandahar city,” the governor’s office said. “The enemies of the people and country also burned down the furniture and a bus at a ladies’ high school in Kandahar and destroyed some other properties.

Shops and restaurants throughout the city were shuttered and routes leading into the city were blocked by security forces.

An Associated Press photographer estimated the crowd at a few thousand and said demonstrators had smashed his camera and roughed up other journalists.

The bloodshed began Friday in Kabul, Herat in western Afghanistan and Mazar-i-Sharif, where thousands flooded the streets.

The seven foreigners killed at the U.N. compound included four Nepalese guards. The other three were identified by officials in their home countries as: Joakim Dungel, a 33-year-old Swede; Lt. Col. Siri Skare, a 53-year-old female pilot from Norway; and Filaret Motco, a 43-year-old Romanian who worked in the political section of the U.N.

Dan McNorton, a spokesman for the U.N. in Kabul, said the organization had no plans to pull out of Afghanistan.

“The U.N. is absolutely committed to remaining in Afghanistan to ensure that the Afghan people receive all the support they deserve from the U.N.,” McNorton said.

Karzai’s office said the president spoke on the telephone Saturday morning with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Karzai asked the secretary-general to extend his condolences to the families of the slain U.N. workers.

He also called on the U.N. to help promote religious tolerance throughout the world to ease friction between people of different faiths. Karzai said Afghan officials were investigating the U.N. attack and would bring the perpetrators to justice.

In Florida, Wayne Sapp, a pastor at the church, called the events “tragic,” but said he did not regret the actions of his church.

“I in no way feel like our church is responsible for what happened,” Sapp said in a telephone interview on Friday.Afghan authorities suspect insurgents melded into the mob outside the U.N. compound and they announced the arrest of more than 20 people, including a militant they suspect was the ringleader of the assault. The suspect was an insurgent from Kapisa province, a hotbed of militancy about 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of the city, said Rawof Taj, deputy provincial police chief.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid sent a text message to The Associated Press on Saturday denying that the insurgency was responsible for killing the U.N. workers.

Demonstrators have alleged that the four protesters were killed by Afghan security forces. Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said Saturday that a delegation of high-ranking Afghan officials was being sent to the city to investigate what happened during the demonstration in which seven vehicles, including a police vehicle, were burned.

“When the demonstration started, the number of people increased every minute to around 5,000,” Bashary said. “The police did take action, but we are investigating how these casualties occurred. Were the steps and actions by police adequate or not?”

Bashary also gave reporters details of Saturday’s attack on NATO’s Camp Phoenix, a base on the east side of Kabul that’s used to train Afghan security forces.

He said three armed insurgents wearing suicide bomb vests arrived at a main gate at the base around 6:45 a.m. Two of the attackers opened fire and then detonated their vests of explosives, Bashary said. The third opened fire and was killed by NATO forces. The body of a fourth person, an Afghan man at the scene, has not been identified. Three NATO service members were injured.

The gate at the base was scorched from the explosions. An AP reporter at the scene saw the remains of at least one of the attackers dangling from the gate. Police officer Mohammad Shakir told the AP that two suicide bombers were clad in blue burqas, the all-encompassing coverings worn by many women in Afghanistan.

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Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann in Kabul and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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