KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) – At least 10 people have been killed and 83 wounded in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, officials said yesterday, on a second day of violent protests over the burning of a Koran by a radical fundamentalist Christian in the United States.
A suicide attack also hit a NATO military base in the capital Kabul, the day after protesters over-ran a UN mission in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and killed seven foreign staff, in the deadliest attack on the UN in Afghanistan.
Some protesters in Kandahar carried white Taliban flags and shouted slogans including “long live the Taliban” and “death to America.“ In rioting that lasted hours, they smashed shops, burned tyres and vandalised a girl’s high school.
Two of the dead were Afghan policemen, an official said.
The violence is the worst in Afghanistan for months, and comes as the country gears up for the first stage of a years-long security handover to Afghan troops, and after the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, delivered an optimistic assessment of progress in the war.
Top UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said the United Nations would review security arrangements but would not be leaving the country because of Friday’s attack.
“This should not deter the UN presence (and) activities in this country in this delicate and particularly crucial period,” he told a small group of journalists after flying back from Mazar-i-Sharif with the bodies of his dead colleagues. The protesters were driven by anger at the actions of extremist Christian preacher Terry Jones who supervised the burning of the Koran in front of about 50 people at a church in Florida on March 20, according to his website.
The burning initially passed relatively unnoticed in Afghanistan, but after criticism from President Hamid Karzai, and calls for justice during Friday sermons, thousands poured into the streets in several cities to denounce Jones.
Afghan and UN officials said insurgents had incited violence at peaceful protests. Marches in Kabul, the western city of Herat and northern Tahar province ended without unrest.
But the Taliban denied any role in the Mazar attack or Kandahar protests and analysts warned against underestimating the depth of anti-Western sentiment in much of Afghanistan, after years of military presence and many civilian casualties.
“Insurgent provocation is not necessary for things like (the UN attack) to happen, because indeed the mood and atmosphere in a large part of the population is like this,” said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
“Anger over foreigners in general, which has probably spread from the military to NGOs and the UN and other actors, just needs a little spark and things can be set alight.”
In Kabul yesterday, a group of burkha-clad insurgents attacked a coalition base, although they caused only light injuries to three soldiers, police and NATO said.
In Kandahar, one of the policemen killed and several civilians died from gunshot wounds, said Abdul Qayum Pukhla, the senior health official for the province. The rest of the dead had been beaten and stoned he added.
It was not clear if gunshot wounds were caused by protesters or police trying to control them over hours of rioting.
A band of around 150 men who had taken to the streets to denounce the Koran burning set tyres alight, smashed shops and assaulted an Afghan photographer, Reuters’ witnesses said. Some of the attackers were carrying guns.