At least a dozen people were killed in Afghanistan yesterday as violence continued for a second day in protest at the burning of the Koran by an American fundamentalist Christian church. Nine died in Kandahar, and three in attempted suicide attacks in Kabul. The day before, Muslim protesters forced their way into a UN mission and killed seven foreign staff, beheading two of them.
The leader of the US church which burnt the Koran and triggered the violence said yesterday he felt he had nothing to apologise for. Terry Jones, a vehement homophobe who runs a furniture business as well as the curious and ill-attended Dove World Outreach Center in Florida, said: "I think it does prove that there is a radical element of Islam." He also revealed in an interview with ABC News the bizarre process his church went through before the burning.
Having threatened last year to burn the Koran, and then been talked out of it by President Barack Obama, the church decided last month to put the Islamic holy book on trial. With Jones acting as judge, and members of his church the jury, cases for the defence and prosecution were heard, and a verdict of guilty pronounced. There were various options for punishment, including burning, shredding and the Koran facing the firing squad. The people, as Jones called them, chose setting fire to a book which more than a billion people around the world revere, and a copy of the Koran was duly burnt in the church.
Yet the fuse that led from the match being lit in Florida to the inflaming of protesters in Afghanistan was long and slow. The burning happened on 20 March, and was little reported. Four days later, in an initiative that may well tell its own story, the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, condemned the Florida church's action. It then took a further week before the violence broke out.
It showed itself first in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, at a United Nations mission. It appears that people emerged from a mosque and were swiftly joined by several thousand others. Later in the afternoon, a small number of them attacked the UN guards with knives, took their guns and entered the compound. Four guards from Nepal and three other foreigners employed at the UN office were killed. They were named yesterday as Joakim Dungel, a 33-year-old Swede; Lt-Col Siri Skare, 53, a female pilot from Norway; and Filaret Motco, 43, a Romanian who worked in the UN's political section.
The government claimed insurgents had mingled with demonstrators and instigated the violence. A Taliban spokesman, speaking by phone from an undisclosed location, said: "The Taliban had nothing to do with this. It was a pure act of responsible Muslims. The foreigners brought the wrath of the Afghans on themselves by burning the Koran." Afghan authorities say they arrested more than 20 people, including an insurgent from Kapisa province, a hotbed of militancy, who they suspect was the ringleader of the assault. Four protesters also died in the attack.
Nine of yesterday's killings, the victims of which are not yet known, occurred in Kandahar, capital of the spiritual heartland of the Taliban. Hundreds of Afghans, carrying long sticks and holding copies of the Koran over their heads, marched through the city. The crackle of gunfire could be heard throughout the city, which was blanketed by thick black smoke.
Security forces shot in the air to disperse the crowd, said a spokesman for the provincial governor, adding that it was unclear how the five protesters were killed. Daud Ahsam, a doctor at Kandahar's Mirwais Hospital, said 53 people were also hurt. In the aftermath, shops and restaurants were shuttered, and routes leading into the city blocked by security forces.
Yesterday's other deaths happened at Camp Phoenix, a Nato base on the east side of Kabul used to train Afghan security forces. Two suicide bombers disguised as women arrived at the main gate at about 6.45am, opened fire, then detonated vests of explosives. A third attacker opened fire and was killed by Nato forces. The body of a fourth person, an Afghan man at the scene, has not been identified. Three Nato service members were injured.
An interior ministry spokesman, Zemeri Bashary, said yesterday that a delegation of high-ranking Afghan officials was being sent to the scene of Friday's attack to investigate what happened during the demonstration, in which seven vehicles, including a police vehicle, were burned.
The violence is the worst in Afghanistan for months, and comes as the country gears up for the first stage of a security handover to Afghan troops, and after the commander of US and Nato forces, General David Petraeus, delivered an optimistic assessment of progress in the war.