Afghan policeman kills NATO soldiers, protests continue

By Elyas Yaseni

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) – A “rogue” Afghan border policeman shot dead two foreign soldiers on a training mission in northern province Faryab on Monday, and hundreds took to the streets for a fourth day of protests against the burning of a Koran by a fundamentalist U.S. pastor.

The shooting was the latest in a string of attacks by Afghan security forces against their NATO mentors, but senior border police said the 23 year-old might have been driven by anger over the desecration of Islam’s holy book rather than support for militants’ fight against foreign troops.

“It is not clear whether he was inspired by the Taliban, or by the burning of the holy Koran,” General Habibullah Sayedkhil, commander of the border police in the north, told Reuters.

The man, who fled after the shooting, had over two years experience in the force and was a disciplined policeman who had not shown signs of extremism, said Najmuddin Sardar, deputy commander of the border police where he served.

Originally from Faryab province, his family had moved to the large northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Sardar added.

A Taliban spokesman contacted by Reuters declined to say whether the group was responsible for the attack, referring questions to a second representative who could not be reached.

Across other parts of Afghanistan protests continued against the actions of radical fundamentalist Christian preacher Terry Jones, who supervised the burning of a Koran in front of about 50 people at a church in Florida on March 20.

Up to a thousand angry residents in eastern city Jalalabad blocked the main highway to Kabul, set alight effigies of Jones and shouted slogans like “death to America,” said Ahmad Zia Abdulzai, spokesman for the provincial governor.

Hundreds also held peaceful protests in neighboring Laghman and nearby Paktia provinces. In southern Helmand province, residents of Lashkar Gah were coming out for a demonstration when a thwarted suicide attack cleared the streets.

Police spotted two men driving into the central court and opened fire, the Helmand provincial governor’s office said. One was hit and the other managed to detonate his explosives, injuring a policeman and two civilians, but no one was killed.

DEADLY PROTESTS

About 20 people have been killed and nearly 150 wounded over three days of protests in north and south Afghanistan that degenerated into violence, although other large gatherings in some parts of the country ended peacefully.

Twelve people died in Kandahar over Saturday and Sunday, when demonstrators waving white Taliban flags burned cars, attacked police, smashed shops and sacked a girls’ high school.

On Friday, seven foreign U.N. staff and five Afghan protesters were killed after demonstrators overran their office in normally peaceful Mazar-i-Sharif city in the north.

Western political and military leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama and the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, have condemned the Koran burning, as well as the violence that followed.

Those condemnations appear to have done little to placate anger or anti-Western sentiments across much of Afghan society.

Jones has been unrepentant about the Koran burning and has since vowed to lead an anti-Islam protest outside the biggest mosque in the United States later this month.

ROGUE ATTACK

The shooting in Faryab highlighted another challenge for U.S. and NATO forces as they try to prepare for a gradual handover of security responsibilities that begins in July.

Rapid recruitment into the Afghan security forces, which will be boosted to at least 305,000, has raised fears the Taliban has infiltrated sympathizers into the police and army.

Afghan authorities began tighter vetting of recruits after a renegade soldier killed five British troops in 2009, but there have still been at least twenty people killed in such incidents.

In February, at least two German soldiers were killed by a man wearing an Afghan army uniform in northern Baghlan province, and last November a border policeman shot and killed six U.S. troops while they were on a training mission.

Earlier that month three troops from the NATO-led coalition were shot by an Afghan soldier in the south, and in August two Spanish police and an interpreter were killed by an Afghan policeman they were training in the northwest.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said on Monday it was investigating the deaths of the two soldiers who were killed inside a base by an attacker who appeared to be from the Afghan police force.

“According to initial reporting, an individual in an Afghan Border Police uniform fired on the ISAF members inside a compound. The individual who fired the shots fled the scene,” an ISAF statement said.

(Additional reporting by Rafiq Sherzad in Jalalabad and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Writing by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Paul Tait and Daniel Magnowski)

Afghan policeman kills NATO soldiers, protests continue