Tense but quiet day in Kabul after film denounced at Friday prayers

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- A heavy security presence and behind-the-scenes efforts by the government of President Hamid Karzai were credited with staving off violent protests Friday over an anti-Islam film following the week’s main Muslim prayers in the capital.

Riot police in full gear were deployed in the traffic circle closest to the fortified zone containing the U.S. Embassy and the headquarters of NATO forces, and Afghan soldiers patrolled the area as well. Most international installations were in “lockdown” mode, with foreign employees told to stay out of sight.

In Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, protesters burned an American flag and an effigy of President Obama, but eventually dispersed peacefully.

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Mosque sermons at Friday prayers -- which often trigger angry anti-foreign protests at times of tension -- included incendiary rhetoric denouncing the video, the U.S. government, foreigners and Jews, but generally did not include incitement to riot.

“Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom to insult 2 billion people,” said Mullah Enayatullah Baleegh, the imam of one of the city’s oldest and most important mosques, Pul-e-Kheshti. “We declare our hatred for those who always talk about democracy. And If we find the ones who committed this act, we will take revenge.”

But in his sermon, he also urged: “Brothers, be patient.”

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In February, Afghanistan was ripped by days of deadly protests over the burning of copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy book, by U.S. troops at an air base north of Kabul. More than three dozen people were killed. The American troops involved were later disciplined.

Fears of violence in Afghanistan in response to the amateurish film, a portion of a movie produced in Southern California whose trailer was posted on YouTube, mounted after attackers on Tuesday killed four Americans including the ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. The next day, President Obama telephoned Karzai and condemned the video, but also made it clear he expected the Afghan leader to try to keep a lid on unrest.

Karzai himself did not issue any explicit call for calm, but instructed provincial and religious leaders to discourage a violent response to the video and its trailer. Afghan authorities also told Internet providers to block YouTube and other sites where the video trailer could be viewed, and by late Thursday most had complied.


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--Laura King and Hashmat Baktash