Deadly Protests for Koran Burning Reach Kandahar

Kandahar, Afghanistan – Violent protests over the burning of a Koran in Florida flared for a second straight day, with young men rampaging through the streets of this southern capital, flying Taliban flags and wielding sticks.

Nine people were killed and 81 injured in the disturbances, all from bullet wounds, according to Abdul Qayoum Pakhla, head of the provincial health department. One of the dead was a police officer. Kandahar has long been the heartland of the Taliban insurgency but has been relatively quiet in recent months since a surge of additional American troops arrived here.

The protests here came a day after a mob overran the headquarters of the United Nations in Mazar-i-Sharif Friday, killing 12 persons, seven of them international staff. The mob gathered after three mullahs at Friday Prayer urged action in response to the Koran burning by a pastor, Terry Jones, in Florida on March 20.

In Kandahar, several thousand young men, shouting slogans calling for death to Americans and to the Karzai government, were still rioting after several hours on Saturday, setting tires aflame throughout the city, burning cars and attacking journalists trying to cover the disorder. Shops and businesses were closed and most people stayed off the street. Many of the protesters were waving the white flag of the Taliban.

Police said that some of the protestors were armed, and Afghan authorities used live ammunition on occasion to quell the disturbances, which continued all day. Of the 16 arrested, seven were armed, officials said.

Zalmai Ayoubi, spokesman for the provincial governor, said the rioters attacked the Zarghona Ana High School for Girls, burning some classrooms and a school bus. The school is supported by the United States Agency for International Development. The Taliban have opposed girls’ education.

A spokesman for the American military in Kandahar, Lt. Col. Web Wright, said relatively small crowds were involved in the disturbances, with the biggest group of about 100 demonstrators gathered outside the governor’s offices. So far, no coalition military had been targeted. “If we need to get involved we will, but now we’re content to let the Afghan national security forces handle it,” he said.

Although Mazar-i-Sharif has little or no Taliban presence, Kandahar has significant numbers of residents who sympathize with the insurgents.

There were also demonstrations over the Koran burning on Friday and Saturday in Kabul, and on Friday in Herat, in eastern Afghanistan. Both were peaceful and lightly attended.

The latest demonstrations were sparked by sermons at Friday Prayer this week over the Koran burning. A week earlier, Friday Prayer had not provoked such reactions, even though the Koran burning had already taken place.

Both Afghan and international news media had initially played down or ignored the action of Mr. Jones, the Florida pastor. This Thursday, however, PresidentHamid Karzai made a speech and issued statements condemning the Koran burning and calling for the arrest of Mr. Jones for his actions. On Friday that theme was picked up in mosques throughout Afghanistan.

There is no provision in American law for arresting anyone for burning a Koran, or for that matter a Bible, which the courts would consider protected free speech.

“Karzai brought this issue back to life, and he has to take some responsibility for starting this up,” said a prominent Afghan businessman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of concern over retribution if he was publicly critical of the president.

“Karzai’s speech itself provoked people to take such actions,” said Qayum Baabak, a political analyst in Mazar-i-Sarif. “Karzai should have called on people to be patient rather than making people more angry.”

Officials in Mazar-i-Sharif blamed Taliban agitators from other provinces for stirring up violence in the Friday protests there. Zemarai Bashary, the spokesman for the Ministry of Interior in Kabul, said a high-level delegation had been sent to Mazar-i-Sharif to investigate the cause of the attack, including whether Taliban were involved and why police were not able to prevent the bloodshed inside the U.N. compound.

A spokesman for the Taliban, however, denied that the insurgents had any role in the disturbances in either Mazar or Kandahar. “This was the reaction of the people of Afghanistan,” said Zabiullah Mujahid.

Also on Saturday, a team of suicide bombers attempted to breach the front gate at an American military base in Kabul, Camp Phoenix, according to Mohammed Zahir, chief of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Kabul Police. Two of them were disguised as women, wearing full-length burqas, and two others were carrying small arms, he said. One of the burqa-clad bombers blew up at the gate of the camp, and the other managed to get about five yards inside the gate before also detonating. The other two attackers were shot and killed by guards before they could enter, he said.

None of the defenders were injured or killed, authorities said.

Enayat Najafizada contributed reporting from Mazar-i-Sharif.

The article “Deadly Protests for Koran Burning Reach Kandahar” first appeared in The New York Times.