Mazar-I-Sharif, Afghanistan – Stirred up by a trio of angry mullahs who urged them to avenge the burning of a Koran at Florida church, thousands of protesters overran the compound of the United Nations in this northern Afghan city, killing at least 12 people, Afghan and United Nations officials said.
The dead included at least seven United Nations workers — five Nepalese guards and two Europeans, one of them a woman. None were Americans. Early reports, later denied by Afghan officials, said at least two of the dead had been beheaded.
The attack was the deadliest for the United Nations in Afghanistan since 11 people were killed in 2009, when Taliban suicide bombers invaded a guest house in Kabul, and it underscored the latent hostility toward the nine-year foreign presence here, even in a city long considered to be among the safest in Afghanistan — so safe that American troops no longer patrol here in any numbers.
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Unable to find Americans on whom to vent their anger, the mob turned instead on the next-best symbol of Western intrusion — the nearby United Nations headquarters. “Some of our colleagues were just hunted down,” said a spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Kieran Dwyer, confirming the attack.
In Washington, President Obama issued a statement strongly condemning the violence against United Nations workers. “Their work is essential to building a stronger Afghanistan for the benefit of all its citizens,” he said. “We stress the importance of calm and urge all parties to reject violence.”
Afghanistan, deeply religious and reflexively volatile, has long been one of the most reactive flashpoints to perceived insults against Islam. When a Danish cartoonist lampooned the Prophet Mohammed, four people were killed in riots in Afghanistan within days in 2006. The year before, a one-paragraph item in Newsweek alleging that guards in Guantánamo had flushed a Koran down the toilet sparked three days of riots that cost 14 lives in Afghanistan.
Friday’s incident began when three mullahs, addressing worshipers at Friday prayers inside the Blue Mosque here, one of Afghanistan’s holiest places, urged people to take to the streets to agitate for the arrest of Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who oversaw the burning of a Koran on March 20. Otherwise, said the most prominent of them, Mullah Mohammed Shah Adeli, Afghanistan should cut off relations with the United States. “Burning the Koran is an insult to Islam and those who committed it should be punished,” he said.
A crowd of Afghans — some carrying signs reading “Down with America” and “Death to Obama” — poured into the streets and swelled — the governor of Balkh Province, Atta Mohammad Noor, later put the number at 20,000. According to Lal Mohammad Ahmadzai, spokesman for Gen. Mohammad Daoud Daoud, the Afghan National Police commander for northern Afghanistan, the crowd soon overwhelmed the United Nations guards, disarming some and beating and shooting others.
Gen. Abdul Raouf Taj, the deputy police commander for Balkh Province, where Mazar is located, put the death toll at eight foreign United Nations staffers, but said there had not been any beheadings. “Police tried to stop them, but protesters began stoning the building and finally the situation got out of control,” General Taj said.
Mr. Ahmadzai, however, put the death toll at 10 foreigners in the United Nations compound, eight killed by gunshots and two of the victims beheaded.
Mr. Dwyer confirmed that some United Nations staff workers had been killed, but declined to provide a number or the nationalities of the victims until next of kin had been notified.
Mirwais Rabi, director of the public health hospital in Mazar-i-Sharif, said 20 wounded Afghan civilians and five dead Afghan civilians were brought to the hospital in all.
The mob also burned down part of the United Nations compound, toppled guard towers and heaved blocks of cement down from the walls. The victims were killed by weapons that the demonstrators had wrestled away from the United Nations guards, according to Mr. Noor.
Mr. Noor also blamed what he said were Taliban infiltrators among the crowd for urging violence and even distributing weapons; he said 27 suspects were arrested on charges of inciting violence, some from Kandahar and other provinces where the Taliban are more common.
Mr. Jones, the Florida pastor, caused an international uproar by threatening to burn the Koran last year on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Among others, the overall commander of forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, warned at that time that such an action could provoke violence in Afghanistan. Mr. Jones subsequently publicly promised not to burn a Koran, but he nonetheless presided over a mock trial and then the burning of the Koran at his small church in Gainesville, Fla., on March 20, with only 30 worshipers attending.
The provocation drew little response worldwide, but drew angry condemnation in this region, where anti-American sentiment runs high. Last week, President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan condemned the burning in an address before Parliament, and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan on Thursday called on the United States to bring those responsible for the Koran burning to justice.
A prominent Afghan cleric, Mullah Qyamudin Kashaf, acting head of the Ulema Council of Afghanistan (and a Karzai appointee), also called for American authorities to arrest and try Mr. Jones for the Koran burning.
The Ulema Council recently met to discuss the Koran burning, he said in a telephone interview. “We expressed our deep concerns about this act and we were expecting the violence that we are witnessing now,” Mr. Kashaf said. “Unless they try him and give him the highest possible punishment, we will witness violence and protests not only in Afghanistan but in the entire world.”
Mr. Jones was unrepentant. “We must hold these countries and people accountable for what they have done as well as for any excuses they may use to promote their terrorist activities,” he said in a statement. “Islam is not a religion of peace. It is time that we call these people to accountability.”
Last year, even though Mr. Jones called off his burning of the Koran, a subsequent wave of protests at NATO facilities in Afghanistan led to at least five deaths. In several of those incidents, Taliban agitators played a role, allegedly spreading rumors that the Koran burning had taken place. However, the Taliban have had little or no presence in Mazar-i-Sharif.
In other Afghan developments, six American soldiers have been killed in a single operation in eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday and Thursday, a spokesman for the international coalition said Friday.
“I can confirm that six coalition soldiers have been identified as U.S. soldiers, and were all killed as part of the same operation, but in three separate incidents,” said Maj. Tim James.
The operation, a helicopter borne assault into a remote part of Kunar Province close to the Pakistani border, was ongoing. The area is frequently used to infiltrate fighters from Pakistan. The purpose of the operation, Major James said, was to “disrupt insurgent operations.”
The governor of Kunar Province, Said Fazlullah Wahidi, said the operation began Wednesday as a joint Afghan and American air and ground operation in the districts of Sarkani and Marawara, close to the border of Pakistan. He said 14 insurgents were killed and 10 wounded, but had no information about Afghan government casualties.
Enayat Najafizada reported from Mazar-i-Sharif and Rod Nordland from Kabul, Afghanistan. Sharifullah Sahak contributed reporting from Kabul, and Timothy Williams from New York.