ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – At least 22 people have been killed in Afghanistan so far in a series of violent protests against the burning of the Quran by two Florida pastors, according to reports coming from Afghanistan.
Two people were killed and dozens injured on Sunday as new demonstrations erupted in the country over the burning of the Muslim holy book by extremist Christian preachers Terry Jones and Wayne Sapp.
The burning initially passed relatively unnoticed in Afghanistan compared to its volatile Muslim neighbor Pakistan. But after criticism from Afghan President Hamid Karzai and calls for justice during Friday sermons, thousands poured into the streets in several cities to denounce Jones this weekend.
Although widespread protests are continuing in Pakistan, no violence has been reported from any part of the country, which is well-known for being home to many Muslim extremists.
According to reports coming from Afghanistan, one person was killed and 18 injured in what officials described as an accidental explosion that ripped through crowds of protesters in the southern city of Kandahar.
"The protesters set ablaze a traffic police booth. Inside there was a gas bottle which exploded," Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary told reporters, calling it accidental.
However, reports suggested that some protesters carried white Taliban flags and shouted slogans including "long live the Taliban" and "death to America." In rioting that lasted hours, they smashed shops, burned tires and vandalized a girl's high school.
The Quran burning was carried out March 20 by Wayne Sapp in a Florida church under the supervision of Terry Jones, who last September drew sweeping condemnation over his plan to ignite a pile of Qurans on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The event was presented as a trial of the book in which the Quran was found "guilty" and "executed." The jury deliberated for about eight minutes. The book, which had been soaking for an hour in kerosene, was put in a metal tray in the center of the church, and Sapp started the fire with a barbecue lighter. The book burned for around 10 minutes while some onlookers posed for photos, according to media reports.
Jones had drawn condemnation from many people, including US President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, over his plan to burn the Quran in September. He did not carry out his plan then and vowed he never would, saying he had made his point.
But this time, he said he had been "trying to give the Muslim world an opportunity to defend their book," but did not receive any answer. He said he felt that he couldn't have a real trial without a real punishment. The event was open to the public, but fewer than 30 people attended.
Although attendance and initial coverage of the Quran burning was low, the event resulted in ten people killed and more than 80 injured in clashes with security forces Saturday during day-long protests in Kandahar, which is the spiritual heartland of the Taliban who have fought an insurgency against Hamid Karzai's government and its Western allies since they were ousted by the US-led invasion.
Casualties were reported on Sunday at demonstrations in Kandahar and the neighboring districts of Panjwayi and Dand. At least one person was killed, according to a government official.
Elsewhere, about 500 university students protested in the eastern city of Jalalabad and blocked a key road for several hours, while hundreds of men poured onto the streets in Charikar, capital of Parwan province, north of Kabul, according to local TV reports.
The assault on the UN compound raises fresh concerns over plans by President Karzai and the international coalition to hand control of security in Mazar-i-Sharif, along with six other areas, to Afghan forces from July 1.
The attack on the UN was the worst in Afghanistan since the Taliban were toppled in 2001, but special representative Staffan de Mistura vowed the organization's work would not be affected.
"This should not deter the UN presence, activities, in this country in this delicate and particularly crucial period," he said in a statement to local and foreign media.
The remaining foreign staff from the compound would be temporarily moved to Kabul, he said, but would return as soon as a secure office was established in Mazar-i-Sharif.
"This is not an evacuation. We will watch and monitor the situation everywhere in the country... and I will then decide on relocations inside the country – not outside the country – depending on the circumstances," he said.
Mistura blamed insurgents from outside Mazar-i-Sharif for the deadly attack claimed by the Taliban, saying armed rebels had infiltrated street protests. He criticized the Afghan authorities, saying police should have thrown up a protective cordon around the mission building when the protest broke out.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 demonstrators had taken to the streets after Friday prayers. They threw stones at the UN compound before storming it, and overwhelmed the Nepalese guards, killing four.
According to reports, three Europeans – a Swede, a Romanian and a Norwegian – were shot after fleeing to a secure room, which the attackers managed to enter. One had his throat cut after being shot. The head of the UN office, a Russian, survived the attack by pretending to be Muslim and speaking the local language Dari.
According to Mistura, seven or eight people had been arrested over the attack, and some of them appeared to be rebels from elsewhere.
US President Barack Obama and UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon condemned the attack and also described the Quran burning as an act of "extreme intolerance and bigotry.”
The Taliban, meanwhile, denied any role in the Mazar attack or Kandahar protests.
"The Taliban had nothing to do with this, it was a pure act of responsible Muslims," spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told the local and foreign media from an undisclosed location.
In a press statement Friday, an unapologetic Jones called for "immediate" US and UN action against the perpetrators of the attack on the UN office, saying the whole religion of Islam must be held accountable.
"Islam is not a religion of peace," he said, adding the time had come to hold Islam accountable. "Muslim dominated countries can no longer be allowed to spread their hate against Christians and minorities.
"They must alter the laws that govern their countries to allow for individual freedoms and rights, such as the right to worship, free speech, and to move freely without fear of being attacked or killed."