Koran burning sparks more violence in Afghanistan

Los Angeles Times

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 up to eight deaths in an angry street protest a day after an attack on the U.N. headquarters in a northern city left seven foreigners dead.

Nerves were further jangled in the Afghan capital when a team of gunmen and at least one suicide bomber tried to storm an American-run military installation on Kabul's outskirts early Saturday. The attack was repelled and three assailants were the only fatalities. Three NATO troops were injured, but not seriously, the Western military said.

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, with expatriate staffers ordered to stay indoors and out of public view. It was the deadliest assault on the world body's staff in the course of the 10-year Afghan conflict.

U.N. and Afghan officials identified the dead 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 adviser 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 27 people were arrested in connection with the attack, including one of its 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, with slogan-chanting crowds attacking several government buildings. Provincial spokesman Zalmay Ayuoubi, who reported the eight dead, said dozens of people were injured. He accused the Taliban of inciting the violence.

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 uncontained 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.

A spokeswoman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, Maj. Sunset Belinsky, did not immediately respond to a query as to why NATO forces at a large Western base just outside Mazar-e-Sharif -- the hub of the alliance's northern operations -- were apparently 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.

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. Rev. Terry Jones instead called for retribution against those who carried out the attack.

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