Friday, April 1, 2011

Seven foreign UN workers were killed Friday in Afghanistan by protesters angered by a Koran burning in the United States, the provincial governor said, in what appeared to be the deadliest attack on the United Nations there since the 2001 invasion.

"Seven UNAMA employees have been killed, out of which five are Nepalese and two others are Europeans, one woman and one man," Balkh governor Atta Mohammad Noor said, referring to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

Five protesters also died in the unrest in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, and 20 were injured, the governor told reporters. At least 20 were arrested over the attack, which was claimed by the Taliban.
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US President Barack Obama condemned the attack "in the strongest possible terms", while UN chief Ban Ki-Moon called it "outrageous and cowardly".

Police had earlier placed the death toll at 11 and said eight foreign UN workers were killed. The UN has not confirmed the toll, which would make it the most deadly violence against the UN in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the violence, saying it was the first step in a campaign against the upcoming presidential elections.

Accounts of the attack were contradictory but indicated the killings had been carried out in the style of executions. Local police spokesman Lal Mohammad Ahmadzai told AFP that "two of the killed UN staff were beheaded".

But General Abdul Rauf Taj, a police official in Balkh province, said that "according to the initial reports... none have been beheaded. They were shot in the head."

A spokesman for the UN mission in Kabul, Don McNorton, said: "We are aware of an incident in our Mazar office -- we are currently working to ascertain all the facts."

The provincial governor said the attack was not pre-planned, but police spokesman Ahmadzai said Taliban militants appeared to have infiltrated protesters.

In the last major attack on the UN, five foreign UN staff were killed -- along with two Afghan police officers -- when three armed gunmen wearing explosives-packed vests attacked a central Kabul guesthouse in October 2009.

Mazar-i-Sharif is one of seven areas chosen by President Hamid Karzai and the international coalition to launch a transition process in which foreign forces will pass on responsibility for security to Afghan forces from July 1.

Foreign forces have traditionally been less visible in the city, deemed relatively safe, than in other areas.

Ahead of Friday's violence Afghanistan had condemned the "disrespectful and abhorrent" burning of the Koran by evangelical preacher Pastor Wayne Sapp in a Florida church, calling it an effort to incite tension between religions.

President Hamid Karzai called on the United States to bring those responsible for the burning of the Islamic holy book on March 21 to justice.

Sapp set light to a Koran under the supervision of Terry Jones, who last year drew condemnation over his aborted plan to burn a pile of the holy books to mark the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Jones cancelled his plans under pressure from world leaders including Obama, but the mere threat to burn the Muslim holy book sparked large protests in Afghanistan.

Friday's protest began after the traditional prayers, and demonstrators attacked the UN headquarters, gaining access around 3:00 pm (1030 GMT), a police spokesman said.

"Some protesters were already carrying weapons, as some weapons were taken from (UN) office security guards," he said.

An AFP reporter in Mazar-i-Sharif said the violence continued for three and a half hours, with small arms fire and explosions heard. There were about 500 protesters, the correspondent said.

Several thousand people also protested the Koran burning in the northwestern city of Herat, according to an eyewitness. The protesters, all men, burned US flags and stamped on them, eyewitness Sardar said.

Shafiqullah Behrozian, spokesman for Herat's governor, told AFP that "the demonstration was entirely peaceful... It is because the religious elders of Herat had asked people not to use violence."

The United States consulate in Herat had condemned the Koran burning, but this was not enough to satisfy protesters, Behrozian added.

"The protesters made a resolution containing 13 items which asked the foreign troops to leave Afghanistan, stop killing of civilians, and untie all diplomatic relations with the United States government," he said.

Afghanistan is a deeply devout Islamic country where even rumours that the Koran has been insulted can result in deadly violence.

In January last year seven tribesmen were killed when Afghan security forces opened fire at demonstrations sparked by the alleged desecration of a Koran by US troops in the southern province of Helmand, a hotbed of insurgency.

The demonstrators were trying to overrun NATO bases and police facilities when they were fired on. A subsequent investigation by NATO and Afghan authorities found that no Koran had been torched.

Afghan officials say the Taliban, the main militant group fighting the insurgency, fabricate stories that Western troops have insulted the religion in order to whip up anti-US sentiment -- often successfully.

Friday's attack followed a protest march led by religious clerics and attended by around 200 in Kabul on Friday against the Koran burning and plans announced by Karzai in February for possible permanent US bases in Afghanistan.


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