Two killed, dozens hurt in third day of Afghan protests

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Two policemen were killed and more than 30 people wounded in the southern city of Kandahar on Sunday during the third day of protests across Afghanistan against the burning of a Koran by a militant fundamentalist Christian U.S. pastor, officials said.

Violence at earlier demonstrations claimed more than 20 lives. Ten people were killed and more than 80 wounded in Kandahar on Saturday. Seven foreign U.N. staff and five Afghan protesters were killed on Friday after demonstrators overran an office in normally peaceful Mazar-i-Sharif city in the north.

A senior interior ministry investigator said on Sunday the killers of the U.N. staff appear to have been “reintegrated” Taliban — fighters who had formally laid down arms — although the insurgents have denied any role in the attack.

Over 30 people have been arrested, from areas as far afield as southern Kandahar, western Herat and central Baghlan province, said Munir Ahmad Farhad, a spokesman for the provincial governor.

With little sign of widespread anger fading, the governor also issued an order banning sermons which might “provoke the public.” The violence in Mazar began after Friday prayers, some of them harshly critical of the West.

In Kandahar on Sunday, hundreds of people marched toward another U.N. office, again denouncing the actions of U.S. preacher Terry Jones, who supervised the burning of a Koran in front of about 50 people at a church in Florida on March 20.

The governor had promised a strong police presence and it initially appeared the march would end peacefully; many of the morning’s demonstrators had drifted away before violence began.

There have been peaceful demonstrations in Kabul, Herat city, Jalalabad city in the east and northern Tahar province.

But anger unleashed on Saturday when protesters waved white Taliban flags, shouted “Death to America,” burned tires, smashed shops and vandalized a girls’ school returned to the city.

“The information I have is that two policemen have been killed and 20 others, including police, protesters and citizens, have been wounded,” Ahmad Wali Karzai, head of the Kandahar provincial council, told Reuters.

Another 14 people, including two children, were wounded when protesters seized a gas canister from a shop and set it on fire, causing an explosion, Zalmay Ayoubi, the spokesman for the Kandahar provincial governor said.

WIDESPREAD CONDEMNATION

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, but their statements appear to have done little to placate anger across much of Afghan society.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who last week drew Afghan public attention to the burning, an event that initially gained little media coverage, on Sunday called on the U.S. Houses of Congress to join in the condemnation and prevent a repeat incident.

He made the request at a meeting with U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry and General Petraeus, his office said in a statement.

Eikenberry read to Karzai from U.S. President Barack Obama’s earlier condemnation of the Koran burning, the statement said. It gave no details of Karzai’s response.

Obama denounced the act of burning a Koran but did not mention Jones by name.

On Sunday, Petraeus joined the condemnation voiced by many other leaders, urging Afghans to understand that only a small number of people had been disrespectful to the Koran and Islam.

“We condemn, in particular, the action of an individual in the United States who recently burned the Holy Koran,” Petraeus said in a statement, which was also signed by NATO’s senior civilian representative, ambassador Mark Sedwill.

ANGER CONTINUES

Around 1,000 people blocked the main highway from Kabul to Jalalabad earlier on Sunday and burned U.S. flags.

“We want the preacher who burned the Holy Koran to get a severe punishment,” said 20-year-old protester Jalil Ahmad. “He is not a human being, he is a brain-dead animal.”

In an interview with Reuters on Saturday, Jones was unrepentant and defiantly vowed to lead an anti-Islam protest outside the biggest mosque in the United States later this month.

The Taliban said in a statement on Sunday that Afghans were still ready to give their lives to protest against an offence that it said the West was not taking seriously.

“The U.S. government should have punished the perpetrators, but the American authorities and those in other countries not only did not have a serious reaction, but defended (the burning) to some extent in the name of freedom of religion and speech,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.

(Reporting by Ismail Sameem; Writing by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Paul Tait and Daniel Magnowski)

Two killed, dozens hurt in third day of Afghan protests