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Afghan riots over Quran burning: 2 days, 20 dead

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KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghans rioted for a second day Saturday to protest the burning of a Quran in Florida, killing nine people in Kandahar and injuring more than 80 in a wave of violence that underscored rising anti-foreign sentiment after nearly a decade of war.

The desecration at a small U.S. church has outraged Muslims worldwide, and in Afghanistan it further strained ties with the West. On Friday, 11 people were killed, including seven foreign U.N. employees, in a protest in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

The protests come at a critical juncture as the U.S.-led coalition gears up for an insurgent spring offensive and a summer withdrawal of some troops, and with Afghanistan's mercurial president increasingly questioning international motives and NATO's military strategy.

Two suicide attackers disguised as women blew themselves up and a third was gunned down Saturday when they used force to try to enter a NATO base on the outskirts of Kabul, NATO and Afghan police said. Earlier in the week, six U.S. soldiers died during an operation against insurgents in eastern Afghanistan near Pakistan, where the Taliban retain safe havens.

President Hamid Karzai expressed regret for the 20 protest deaths, but he also further stoked possible anti-foreign sentiment by again demanding that the United States and United Nations bring to justice the pastor of the Dove Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, where the Quran was burned March 20. Many Afghans did not know about the Quran-burning until Karzai condemned it four days after it happened.

The pastor, the Rev. Terry Jones, had threatened to destroy a copy of Islam's holy book last year but initially backed down. On Friday he said Islam and its followers were responsible for the killings.

U.S. President Barack Obama extended his condolences to the families of those killed by the protesters and said desecration of the Quran "is an act of extreme intolerance and bigotry." But he said that does not justify attacking and killing innocent people, calling it "outrageous and an affront to human decency and dignity."

In the southern city of Kandahar, the cradle of the Taliban, hundreds of Afghans holding copies of the Quran over their heads marched in protest of the burning. Security forces shot in the air to disperse the crowd, but it was unclear how the protesters were slain, said Zalmai Ayubi, a spokesman for the provincial governor.

The Kandahar governor's office said nine protesters were killed and 81 others were injured in the demonstration that turned into a riot. Seventeen people, including seven armed men, have been arrested, the statement said.

The protests began Friday in Kabul, Herat in western Afghanistan and Mazar-i-Sharif, where thousands flooded the streets.

In Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghan demonstrators stormed a U.N. compound, shooting and killing four Nepalese guards, a Norwegian, a Romanian and a Swede. Afghan authorities suspect insurgents melded into the mob; they announced the arrest of more than 20 people, including a militant they suspect was the ringleader of the assault.

The top U.N. envoy in Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, said the organization was temporarily redeploying 11 staff members from Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul.

"This is not an evacuation, it is a temporary redeployment because the office is not functioning. We will be ready to go back as soon as we can establish an office that is secure enough," he told reporters.

The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, known as UNAMA, has some 1,500 staff — about 80 percent Afghans — operating in 18 regional and provincial offices across the country and in liaison offices in neighboring Pakistan and Iran.

In late 2009, the U.N. sent about 600 foreign staff out of the country or into secure compounds after three gunmen stormed a Kabul guest house used by U.N. staff and killed 11 people, including five U.N. workers.

Karzai has in recent months increasingly criticized both the international community and U.S.-led foreign forces — the first for being ineffectual and unaccountable, the second for causing unnecessary civilian casualties in its campaign against insurgents.

Some Western diplomats privately say Karzai stoked some of the tension in recent days by making speeches about issues that had not gained much attention in the country, including the Quran burning.

De Mistura, however, said he drew no connection between the riots and Karzai's earlier condemnation of the Quran-burning. He said it takes "two to three weeks for information to percolate. It's not like in the West. Then it goes through the mosque and then through the Friday prayers."

"I don't think we should be blaming any Afghan. We should be blaming the person who produced the news — the one who burned the Quran," he said.

Although the Taliban are responsible for the vast majority of killings in Afghanistan, civilian casualties from coalition operations are a major source of strain in the country's relationship with the United States. The deaths tend to generate widespread outrage and Karzai has said they will no longer be tolerated.

The politicking could be part of an effort to reach out to the Taliban as Karzai tries to build bridges with the insurgents as part of a peace and reconciliation process. He and his advisers no longer refer to the Taliban as insurgents. They are often referred to as armed opposition groups.

The Taliban themselves have no such qualms and openly call for the overthrow of Karzai's government. Last week about 300 Taliban fighters overran the tiny capital of a remote mountainous district in northeast Nuristan province and raised their flag over city hall.

(Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann and Amir Shah in Kabul, and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.)

By Patrick Quinn




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