An Afghan policeman shot and killed two American soldiers Monday in northern Afghanistan, the province's deputy governor said, and protests flared for a fourth straight day in several Afghan cities and towns over an American pastor's burning of the Koran.
The slain Americans were military trainers working in Faryab province, a once-calm area where insurgents have gained a greater foothold over the last year. The episode, the latest in which a member of the Afghan security forces has turned a weapon on Western mentors, pointed up the daunting obstacles to transforming the Afghan police and army into a loyal and professional fighting force.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force said it was investigating the deaths of the two service members, but gave no other details. Deputy Gov. Abdul Sattar Bariz said the shooter, a member of the border police, opened fire on the Americans during a meeting with Afghan counterparts in the provincial capital, Maimana.
The assailant fled the scene, Bariz said.
A string of similar incidents prompted Afghan authorities and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to tighten vetting procedures for police and army recruits, but the Afghan forces remain vulnerable to infiltration by insurgents or sympathizers.
Meanwhile, the furor over a Florida evangelical church's Koran burning last month again sent demonstrators surging into the streets in several locales, although the protests appeared to be tapering off in size and ferocity.
For the first day since lethal riots erupted Friday, resulting in the deaths of seven foreign U.N. workers in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, no fatalities were reported Monday in the protests, which have taken 22 lives.
Still, passions ran high. In Jalalabad, the main urban hub in eastern Afghanistan, protesters blocked a main highway and burned effigies of Terry Jones, the Gainesville-based pastor whose congregants put the Muslim holy text on "trial" and burned it, disseminating the images on the Internet.
Other demonstrations took place in the capital of Helmand province, Lashkar Gah, which, like Mazar-i-Sharif, has been designated by Afghan President Hamid Karzai as one of seven areas where his nation's police and army are to assume security control this year. More protests took place in Laghman and Paktia provinces, in eastern Afghanistan.
In Lashkar Gah, the demonstration was cut short by a suicide bombing apparently aimed at the main courthouse. Other than the two attackers, no one was killed, though a policeman and at least one civilian were hurt.
Karzai's spokesman, Wahid Omar, said government delegations had been dispatched to Mazar-i-Sharif and to the southern city of Kandahar, where at least 11 people were killed in two days of demonstrations, to investigate the riots' genesis and the police response.
The spokesman suggested, however, there was little they could have done to contain the violence or protect the U.N. workers without killing many demonstrators.
"Civil police have their limitations in terms of controlling crowds during protests," Omar told reporters. "They were trying not to harm people, which is the duty of every police officer in the world."