Afghan protests spread over Quran burning; at least seven dead

By MARTIN KUZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 22, 2012

KABUL, Afghanistan — A wave of anti-American rage swept across Afghanistan on Wednesday, leaving at least seven people dead and more than 30 injured during a second day of protests over coalition troops at Bagram Air Base burning copies of the Quran.

Afghan officials reported that police attempting to control crowds killed four people in Parwan province and a fifth person in Kabul, the nation’s capital. One person died in the eastern city of Jalalabad and another in Logar province during similar clashes.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul was locked down, and embassy, coalition and United Nations officials imposed travel restrictions on their personnel and urged international workers and visitors to avoid travel inside Afghanistan.

The upheaval came a day after some 2,000 people gathered outside the base in Bagram following reports of coalition soldiers burning copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, along with a cache of other Islamic religious materials.

In Kabul, more than 1,000 demonstrators, ranging from preteens to middle-aged men, marched through slush-filled streets on a cold, clear morning while chanting “Death to America!” and “Death to foreigners!”

Some thrust wooden sticks and metal poles in the air as others hurled stones at cars and shop windows and set fire to tires, sending up tendrils of acrid black smoke.

“The foreign troops know how important the holy Quran and our religion is for us,” said Kaushal Hotak, 24, an engineering student at a private university that he declined to name. “They know how angry we get if someone burns the holy Quran. But still they do it.”

Tensions peaked as protesters threw rocks at the walls surrounding Camp Phoenix, a U.S. military base about five miles outside the city center. Afghan police dressed in riot gear and holding clear Plexiglas shields fired rubber bullets to scatter the throng.

Officials later claimed police fired into the air. But an eyewitness at the scene said a man who appeared to have been shot in the foot was loaded into a car by two bystanders and taken away. The crowd then walked toward the city’s center.

Razi Gul, 51, who runs a small grocery store, questioned how coalition troops, after more than a decade in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban-led insurgency, had failed to recognize that burning the Quran represents an affront to Muslims.

“If they do not stop these kinds of actions, then they are welcome to leave us alone,” he said. “If they still want to help Afghanistan, they must respect our culture and religion.”

On Monday, soldiers at Bagram, one of the largest coalition air fields in Afghanistan, sought to dispose of copies of the Quran and other Islamic religious writings removed from the base’s detention facility. Coalition officials said detainees had written “extremist” messages on the material.

Afghan workers on the base noticed the Qurans amid a truckload of materials that soldiers brought to an incinerator for disposal. The workers recovered several charred copies of the holy book.

The episode prompted U.S. Gen. John Allen, NATO’s commander in Afghanistan, to publicly apologize and order an investigation Tuesday. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and a White House spokesman issued additional apologies.

Allen issued a second statement late Tuesday, saying that all coalition troops would receive training by March 3 on proper handling and storage of religious materials.

But protesters were unappeased by the contrition of U.S. officials, dismissing claims that the burning of the sacred Islamic texts had been unintentional.

“We don’t want foreign soldiers in Afghanistan anymore,” said 14-year-old Abdul Kabir, wielding a shovel handle as he walked. “Foreigners are killing ordinary Afghans … and they also keep disrespecting our religion. So we don’t need them here.”

German Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, ISAF spokesman, said Wednesday that an Afghan delegation had joined the investigation.

Many details remain unclear, but he said that investigators would deliver a “very clear statement on what we see has happened on the ground” early Thursday.

“It is a very vital part of the investigation that we find out what was the material, what was the reason for the decision to dispose of it, who gave the orders, what was the chain, how did the material then go to the burn pit, and what actually happened at the burn pit,” Jacobson said.

Destruction of the Quran has previously ignited violence in Afghanistan. Last spring, after a Florida pastor burned a Quran at his church, protesters in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif attacked a United Nations compound and killed seven foreign workers.

In 2005, riots broke out in Afghanistan and Pakistan following a Newsweek report, later retracted, that U.S. authorities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, flushed a Quran in a toilet to taunt Muslim prisoners. More than a dozen deaths resulted from the unrest.

Zubair Babakarkhail and Stars and Stripes reporter Chris Carroll contributed to this report.

Twitter: @martinkuz


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