Death Toll Rises to 23 from Afghan anti-U.S. Protests

Sardar Ahmad – Daily Star Lebanon February 24, 2012

Anti-U.S. protesters tried to storm a U.S. consulate and march on NATO headquarters in Kabul on Friday as violent demonstrations over the burning of Korans pushed into a fourth day, killing 23 people.

Afghan officials said five people died Friday, four of them in the usually relatively peaceful western province of Herat and another demonstrator in the northern province of Baghlan, where hundreds took to the streets.

The Koran incident has fanned the flames of anti-Western sentiment already burning over abuses by the US-led foreign troops, such as the release last month of a video showing US Marines urinating on the corpses of dead Afghans.

President Hamid Karzai’s government and the US-led NATO mission in Afghanistan has appealed for calm and restraint, fearful that Taliban insurgents are trying to exploit the anti-American backlash.

But in Herat city, three people died as protesters surged towards the US consulate while four more were killed elsewhere in the province, provincial spokesman Moheedin Noori told AFP.

“Seven people were killed and 50 others were injured – mostly in gunfire – across Herat province,’ said Noori.

A security official told AFP that demonstrators had tried to storm the consulate and that some had tried to grab guns from the police.

Another protester was shot dead and two wounded when demonstrators tried to overrun the Czech-led military-civilian provincial reconstruction team in northeastern Baghlan province, provincial governor Abdul Majeed said.

Friday’s deaths bring to at least 23 the number of people killed since Tuesday at violent anti-US protests over the burning of Korans at the US airbase of Bagram, north of the capital.

In Kabul, at least three people were wounded in surging demonstrations in several different locations, an interior ministry spokesman said.

The protests flared after Friday prayers, where mullahs condemned “Infidels” for the desecration of Islam’s holy book.

“Those who have committed this crime should be identified and should be publicly executed,” said mullah Mohammad Ayaz Niazi at Kabul’s Wazir Akbar Khan mosque.

“You have not just betrayed a nation, but you have played with the faith and sentiments of 1.7 billion Muslims worldwide, and you have trampled their holy book,” he said, while urging that any protests should be peaceful.

Rallies also broke out in northern Kunduz province, as well in central Bamiyan and Ghazni and eastern Nangarhar, AFP correspondents said.

Two US soldiers were shot dead by an Afghan soldier at a protest on Thursday. French, Norwegian and US military bases also came under attack, after insurgents exhorted their countrymen to kill foreign troops in revenge.

The US embassy in Kabul has been in lock-down for days, while extra security forces are protecting foreign missions and other strategic places, some armed with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine-guns.

Last April, 10 people were killed and a UN compound in the north was overrun during days of unrest unleashed by the burning of a Koran by American pastor Terry Jones in Florida.

The Afghan government and the US commander of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, General John Allen, called for calm and restraint in a country wracked by 10 years of war against hardline Islamist insurgents.

“Working together with the Afghan leadership is the only way for us to correct this major error and ensure that it never happens again,” said Allen.

Government investigators urged Afghans to “avoid resorting to protests and demonstrations that may provide ground for the enemy to take advantage of the situation”.

The US-led NATO coalition has some 130,000 troops in Afghanistan, fighting an insurgency by remnants of the Taliban government overthrown in 2001 for sheltering Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks.

The coalition plans to pull out all combat troops by 2014, but several countries are under pressure at home to call an early end to the unpopular campaign.

The circumstances surrounding the Koran incident are still subject to investigation. But US officials told AFP the military removed the books from a prison at Bagram because inmates were suspected of using them to pass messages.

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