Koran-burning sparks deadly retribution

Outraged by the burning of a Koran in the United States, rioters attacked a United Nations compound in the northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Friday, leaving at least seven foreigners and four Afghans dead after an hour-long rampage and raising troubling questions about the capacity of the Afghan police to maintain law and order.

Mazar-i-Sharif, a prosperous city run by a strongman governor, has been considered among the few relatively peaceful places in Afghanistan. Only 10 days ago, it was named as one of the first four provincial capitals where local security forces will assume full responsibility for security beginning this summer.

The attack occurred as crowd of some 2,000 men marched past the compound in an organized protest against the burning of a Koran two weeks ago by a fringe Florida pastor, Terry Jones.

Most Afghans, lacking access to international news and the Internet, learned of the incident just this week from local media after President Hamid Karzai publicly condemned the Koran-burning.

Televised images from the scene of the attack showed the police overwhelmed and seemingly helpless as a crowd of men surged into the compound. One Afghan police officer stood beside the concrete wall of the UN building firing into the air as people crouched on the ground in terror and men clambered on top of the wall to hurl basketball-sized stones into the compound.

Kieran Dwyer, a spokesman for the UN mission in Afghanistan, said attackers shot their way into the compound, set it on fire and stalked the staff members trapped inside. “Our colleagues were hunted down in there,” he said.

Norway said one of the UN victims was Lieutenant-Colonel Siri Skare, a 53-year-old female pilot. Sweden said Joakim Dungel, a 33-year-old Swede who worked at the UN office, was another. A Romanian and four UN guards from Nepal were also killed.

Police arrested the suspected mastermind behind the attack, Afghan officials said, adding that he was from Kapisa province, a hotbed of the insurgency about 400 kilometres southeast of Mazar-i-Sharif.

The United Nations Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting on the attack, while the American preacher told the British Broadcasting Corporation that he did not feel guilty over the deaths in Mazar. “We are not responsible for their actions,” Mr. Jones said, when asked about the attack.

The march began as a peaceful protest, with some holding banners and chanting anti-American slogans, setting out in an orderly procession from the central mosque of Mazar-i-Sharif following Friday prayers.

“But when they got closer to the compound they got crazy and started throwing rocks,” said Qari Khodrat, a spokesman for the provincial governor. “When they started out, we didn’t see armed people among them but then shooting started from within the crowd of protesters.”

Accounts of what happened when the crowd reached the UN compound were confused and contradictory.

A spokesman for the provincial police chief, Sherzan Durani, said some marchers suddenly wrestled guns away from the guards at the building. Other local officials said armed men were hiding among the protesters and started shooting when the crowd veered toward the UN building. One of the protesters told an Afghan television station that the UN guards were the first to shoot.

Another theory, one that some UN officials considered plausible, was that Taliban infiltrated the demonstration and used it as a cover for a bold assault on a symbol of the foreign presence in Afghanistan.

“The insurgents took advantage of the situation to attack the United Nations compound,” said Ata Mohammad Noor, the provincial governor.

In any case, the Afghan police had been warned well in advance of a large and potentially unruly demonstration.

One witness, Reza Amiri, said he had seen flyers pasted to the walls of shops around the city on Wednesday and Thursday calling for protests against the wholesale burning of Korans by “American churches.”

Other residents said they saw cars fitted with loudspeakers cruising Mazar-i-Sharif the previous day, broadcasting appeals to demonstrate against what was said to be the burning of hundreds of Korans in the United States.

The pastor who organized the Koran burning, from a tiny congregation in Florida, may be written off as an obscure fanatic in the West. But in deeply religious countries such as Afghanistan any desecration of the book believed to embody the word of God provokes violent anger.

Mr. Jones, who after international condemnation last year cancelled a plan to burn copies of the Koran, supervised the burning of the book in front of a crowd of about 50 people at his Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., on March 20, according to his website.

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