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Demonstration against Koran-burning plan turns deadly in Afghanistan

Protesters in a province south of Kabul try to overrun local government headquarters, and Afghan police open fire. Rising tensions ahead of Saturday's parliamentary elections add to the unrest.

September 13, 2010|By Laura King, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan —

Two people were killed and about half a dozen others injured in continuing protests Sunday against an American pastor's plan — suspended two days earlier — to burn copies of the Muslim holy book.

Violence stemming from the now-defunct threat by a heretofore little-known pastor, Terry Jones, illustrated the depth of outrage inspired in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world over his church's declared intent to desecrate the Koran to mark the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The episode also showed the difficulty of tamping down anti-Western sentiment in Afghanistan once popular fury has been whipped up by religious leaders and other organizers — a particular hazard in a country where many people are illiterate and word of the cancellation of the Koran-burning spread only slowly.

Sunday's lethal clash occurred in Lowgar province, south of the capital, Kabul. The province had been the scene of a much larger protest a day earlier that attracted more than 10,000 people. Initially peaceful, Saturday's protest took a violent turn as demonstrators hurled stones and tried to storm the provincial governor's compound.

The demonstration on Sunday, in the district of Baraki Barak, followed a similar pattern: Hundreds of protesters tried to overrun the local government's headquarters, and Afghan police opened fire.

Days of unrest over the threatened Koran-burning coincided with rising tensions in advance of Saturday's parliamentary elections. Many observers fear that vote will be beset with both fraud and violence.

Taliban fighters have vowed to try to disrupt the balloting for the lower house of parliament, the second such vote since the austere Islamist movement was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion nearly nine years ago.

Western leaders have characterized the elections as a means of strengthening and showcasing Afghanistan's still-young democracy. But the insurgents, capitalizing on already potent anti-government sentiment in many parts of the country, have denounced the balloting as a farce meant to prop up a corrupt central government.

As with last summer's presidential election, the mere act of casting a vote places ordinary Afghans at considerable risk. The massive vote-rigging that accompanied the balloting of August 2009 left many people reluctant to take their lives in their hands in order to go to the polls.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization force, which includes about 100,000 American troops, has devoted considerable resources to safeguarding the vote. The Western military said Sunday that a Taliban commander who had plotted to stage rocket attacks on polling stations was killed along with four other insurgents.

The deaths took place during a strike Saturday evening on a compound in Nangarhar province, in eastern Afghanistan. The province, which had been considered relatively safe during last summer's vote, now has the largest number of voting centers that have been closed because of security fears.

laura.king@latimes.com

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