UN staff beheaded as Afghans rage against pastor who burnt Koran

Twenty left dead after thousands of militants overwhelm compound in Mazar-i-Sharif
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A protest by hundreds of people in Afghanistan against the ceremonial burning of the Koran by a US pastor left up to 20 people dead as militants overran a UN compound and beheaded foreign staff.

The attackers forced their way into the lightly defended compound during a protest by up to 2,000 people following prayers yesterday in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. They overpowered the guards, beheaded two people, toppled a guard tower and torched part of the complex.

The protesters hurled stones at police, who responded by firing into the air during clashes that lasted up to three hours and left at least five of the protesters dead from gunshot wounds, according to witnesses. Mirwais Rabeh, director of the health department in Balkh province, said another 20 protesters were injured. All the victims had gunshot wounds.

A UN spokesman in Afghanistan said that seven of its international employees – including both UN staff and security guards – had been killed.

Pastor Terry Jones, who supervised the book-burning ceremony in front of about 30 people at a Florida church less than 10 days ago, was unrepentant, saying the incident in Afghanistan was "tragic and criminal". "The time has come to hold Islam accountable," he said.

The governor of Northern Balkh province said insurgents had taken advantage of the protest to launch an attack on the UN. German troops are also stationed in Balkh, and the Nato-led coalition said it had received a request for help.

Afghan authorities suspect insurgents melded into the mob and they announced the arrest of more than 20 people, including a militant they suspect was the ringleader of the assault in Mazar-i-Sharif, the provincial capital of Balkh province. The suspect was an insurgent from Kapisa province, a hotbed of militancy about 250 miles south-east of the city, said Rawof Taj, deputy provincial police chief.

The Russian chief of the UN mission was wounded in the attack but survived. Nepalese Gurkha guards and local employees were among the dead. Other employees from Norway, Romania and Sweden were also killed, according to police sources cited by the news agency Reuters.

Russia called on the Afghan government and international forces to "take all necessary measures" to protect UN workers, in a statement issued by the foreign ministry after the attack. The UN said that Staffan De Mistura, the top UN diplomat in Afghanistan, has flown to Mazar-i-Sharif to deal with the attack.

The attacks appeared to be the deadliest response yet to the activities of the fringe Dove World Outreach church group, which sparked outrage across the Islamic world last year over its plans to burn the Koran to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. After days of damaging publicity and violent protests, Mr Jones cancelled his plans under mounting pressure from world leaders.

However, he conducted a "trial" of the holy book less than two weeks ago at his church when a "jury" determined that it was guilty of assorted crimes. A copy of the Koran was then set on fire by one of his associate pastors in front of a few dozen people.

Despite little publicity for the book-burning, it was condemned by President Hamid Karzai's office as a "disrespectful and abhorrent act" and he called on the US government to punish those responsible.

Thousands of demonstrators also marched through western Herat city yesterday and around 200 marched in Kabul, but those marches passed off peacefully.

President Barack Obama last night condemned the killing of the UN workers. "Their work is essential to building a stronger Afghanistan for the benefit of all its citizens. We stress the importance of calm and urge all parties to reject violence," he said in a statement. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, speaking from Nairobi, described the attacks as "outrageous and cowardly".

The worst previous attack on the UN in the country was an insurgent assault on a guest house where staff were staying in October 2009. Five employees were killed and nine others wounded.

A bomb attack on the UN compound in Algiers in December 2007 killed 17 UN staff. The bombing of a hotel in Baghdad in August 2003 where the UN mission had its headquarters took the lives of at least 22 people.

The city of Mazar-i-Sharif has remained relatively peaceful, and was recently chosen as one of the first areas for a transition of security from Nato troops to Afghan forces.

Long-standing anger over civilian casualties has been heightened by the Koran burning and the recent publication of gruesome photographs of the body of an unarmed Afghan teenager killed by US soldiers.

The deaths were not the first to be blamed on the actions of Mr Jones and his church. Four men guarding the Christian community in Baghdad were killed last year following warnings by authorities that they were at greater risk because of the book-burning threats.

"Pastor Terry Jones is directly responsible for the murder of some of our people," the Baghdad-based Canon Andrew White told The Independent last month. "He [Jones] can try and say from the safety of Florida he was trying to make an important point. But it was an important point that killed our people."

The gun-toting pastor

Pastor Terry Jones first threatened to burn 200 copies of the Koran at his Florida church on the anniversary of 9/11 last year.

He backed off at the last moment amid warnings from every corner – including an alarmed President Barack Obama – that the Muslim backlash would be likely to cost lives. But on 21 March, he went through with hisunconscionable deed, albeit with slightly altered choreography.

Perhaps it was inevitable. Pastor Jones conducted a trial of the holy book after which a "jury" at his church determined, after eight minutes of deliberation, that it was "guilty" of assorted crimes. The book, which had already been soaking for an hour in kerosene, was then set on fire by an associate pastor, Wayne Sapp, using a barbecue lighter.

There was scant media attention this time, but enough that word of it leaked beyond the walls of the ironically called "Dove World Outreach" church to inflame passions among Muslims in the outside world.

And what did Jones, a gun-toting Harley Davidson enthusiast who leads a motley congregation of some 50 people in his church, have to say about it that day? "This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," he said.

David Usborne in New York