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Fury in Afghanistan over Koran-burning continues as protests leave nine dead

In Kandahar, nine die and 80 are injured in a rampage by demonstrators sparked by a Florida pastor's burning of the Koran. An attack on a U.S.-run military installation near Kabul is repelled and three assailants are killed. Many humanitarian organizations are in lockdown mode.

April 02, 2011|By Laura King, Los Angeles Times
  • An Afghan soldier passes the gate of a NATO base after an attack in Kabul.
An Afghan soldier passes the gate of a NATO base after an attack in Kabul. (Musadeq Sadeq, AP Photo )

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — Violent repercussions of a Koran-burning at an obscure Florida evangelical church shook Afghanistan again Saturday, with authorities in the southern city of Kandahar reporting nine people killed in furious street protests a day after an attack on the U.N. headquarters in a northern city left seven foreigners dead.

More than 80 people were injured in Saturday's daylong rioting in Kandahar, the city that the Taliban movement considers to be its spiritual home. Demonstrators torched cars, smashed windows and occupied a school building, a provincial spokesman said. Shops and businesses shut down as most residents of the country's second-largest city took refuge at home.

Nerves were further jangled in the Afghan capital when a team of gunmen and suicide bombers -- at least two of them wearing all-enveloping burqas -- tried to storm an American-run military installation on Kabul's outskirts early Saturday. The attack was repelled and three assailants were killed, along with an Afghan man who may have been a bystander, police said.

Three NATO troops were injured, but not seriously, according to the Western military.

Many international humanitarian organizations operating in Afghanistan were in lockdown mode Saturday in the wake of the U.N. compound attack in Mazar-e-Sharif, north of Kabul, with expatriate staffers told to stay indoors and out of public view. It was the deadliest assault on the world body's staff in the course of the nearly 10-year Afghan conflict.

A spokesman for the U.N. in Afghanistan, Dan McNorton, said U.N. programs in the country's north would continue to operate, but declined to say whether any foreign staff members remained in the area.

U.N. and Afghan officials identified the dead in Friday's attack as four Nepalese Gurkhas who were guarding the compound and three European workers trapped inside: one Swedish, one Norwegian and one from Romania. Norwegian media reported that the slain Norwegian was a female military advisor to the U.N. mission, a decorated veteran and a mother of one.

Four Afghans in the crowd were also killed during the storming of the compound, provincial officials said, and nearly three dozen people were arrested in connection with the attack, including one of its suspected ringleaders. The mob marched on the compound following an incendiary sermon preached at Friday prayers, the most important of the Muslim week, denouncing the Koran-burning.

Saturday's Kandahar protest followed a similar pattern, spreading over a period of hours to several parts of the city. Provincial spokesman Zalmay Ayuoubi accused the Taliban of inciting the violence. However, the provincial government also denounced the "abhorrent" burning of the Koran by "an idiot pastor."

In much of Afghanistan, it is not particularly difficult to whip up an angry mob by exhorting people to defend Islam. The country is known for its deep-seated religious conservatism, and perceived insults to the Muslim faith have triggered deadly riots in the past. .

Mazar-e-Sharif, normally one of the most peaceful cities in Afghanistan, was among seven areas designated last month by the Afghan government as the first where security responsibilities would be handed over to the Afghan police and army. Friday's uncontrolled outbreak of violence cast doubt on that plan, and Afghan authorities said the handling of the situation by Afghan police was being investigated. Some witnesses said police officers fired indiscriminately into the crowd.

NATO forces at a large Western base just outside Mazar-e-Sharif -- the hub of the alliance's northern operations -- were not involved in responding to the peril posed to the U.N. mission. A major Swedish newspaper, Svenska Daghbladet, said Swedish troops stationed at the base were put on standby alert during the mob rampage, but were not deployed.

Gen. Abdul Raouf Taj, the deputy police chief in Balkh province, of which Mazar-e-Sharif is the capital, said 33 arrests had been made in the wake of the attack. He said the exchange of gunfire was believed to have been started by a man he identified as being from Afghanistan's Kapisa province, a former insurgent who had been resettled in Mazar after joining a government "reconciliation" program.

The Florida pastor at the center of the controversy expressed no public regrets over the violence triggered by last month's mock "trial" and subsequent torching of a copy of the Muslim holy book. The Rev. Terry Jones instead called for retribution against those who carried out the attack.

laura.king@latimes.com

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