Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — A violent protest that left dozens of people injured in the Afghan capital Wednesday points to concerted efforts by the Taliban to keep alive the controversy over an American pastor's discarded plans to burn copies of the Koran, Afghan authorities said.
White Taliban flags flew above a crowd of about 800 people who burned tires, shouted anti-American slogans and pelted security forces with stones. Police fired assault rifles into the air to break up the early-morning protest on the outskirts of Kabul.
At least 35 police officers and about 15 demonstrators were injured in the melee, the Interior Ministry said.
The demonstrations, which have persisted for days after the abandoning of plans by a small Florida church to burn the Muslim holy book, suggest an orchestrated campaign that could continue for some time, perhaps disrupting Saturday's parliamentary elections.
The Taliban movement has already threatened to attack voters and polling places, and some districts are considered too dangerous for balloting to take place. The Taliban website this week carried a fresh denunciation of the Koran-burning plan, calling it part of a larger Western assault on Islam.
Afghan authorities say the insurgents are seeking to tap into the outrage generated by the church's threat to whip up fury against Western forces and President Hamid Karzai. Wednesday's rally featured fiery speeches denouncing the Afghan government and the presence of foreign forces, which now number about 150,000.
The organizing of a protest in the capital itself appears to mark an escalation from previous demonstrations, most of which have taken place in rural areas.
The demonstrations' organizers are also able to exploit the fact that in a country where illiteracy is widespread, many people were unaware that Florida pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville did not carry out his plans, which had been condemned by the Obama administration and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of Western troops in Afghanistan.
Gen. Zahir Khan, head of the crime investigation department for the Kabul police, said that at this point the threatened Koran-burning was little more than a pretext to rally anti-government sentiment.
"This was a very violent protest," he said. "And the Taliban were in the crowd."