In Afghanistan, Blood Over the Burning of a Koran

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Mustafa Najafizada / AP

Afghans carrying a man, who got wounded following an attack on UN's office during a demonstration to condemn the burning of a copy of the Muslim holy book by a Florida pastor, in Mazar-i- Sharif north of Kabul, Afghanistan on Friday, April. 1, 2011. An Afghan official says seven people have been killed at a U.N. office in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif when a Koran burning protest turned violent.

Violent protests rocked the southern Afghanistan city of Kandahar on Saturday as more than 2,000 people marched against the burning of a Koran by a radical Christian preacher in Gainesville, Fla., two weeks ago. The demonstration left eight dead and 61 injured, Afghan media reported, as protesters set local businesses and cars ablaze. Saturday's events marked the second aggressive protest in Afghanistan in as many days. The first demonstration, on Friday, turned violent when hundreds of men in the normally peaceful northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif breached the UN compound there with automatic rifles taken from security guards. The attackers killed three UN staff from Norway, Romania and Sweden, as well as four Nepali security guards, and wounded one other, a UN spokesman confirmed.

In Kandahar on Saturday, personnel at a USAID-funded international aid organization — the only one still working in the center of the city — were under tight security restrictions for most of the day as fighting raged in the streets. "We were under lockdown. They basically put a weapon in the corner for me. Security personnel thought it was going to go down," a foreign aid worker at the compound told TIME by mobile phone on condition of anonymity because he did not have permission to speak. "The protesters were about a kilometer from the compound and were marching this way. The Afghan National Army cut them off... . For about an hour and a half there was heavy gunfire, non-stop. I know that there were definitely firefights and there is smoke and fire all over the city now."

"Shooting started around 9:30 this morning, but shit started getting really crazy around 10. By around 11:30 it started to quiet down," he said. "We were ready for the worst and we are still ready. Security is expecting another flame up after lunch and prayers. Right now they are running around everywhere reinforcing the guard posts and walls."

An Afghan television news video from Mazar-i-Sharif on Friday showed many hundreds of men chanting slogans as they left the famous Shrine of Hazrat Ali after Friday prayers. The video showed men on the heavy concrete blast walls of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) compound tearing down a guard tower. As the wooden structure toppled a cheer went up in the crowd. Later footage shows Afghan National Police (ANP) firing into the air and the crowd running away and taking cover in the street.

At a Friday night press conference, Ata Mohammad Noor, the governor of Balkh provence, where Mazar-i-Sharif is located, said five demonstrators were killed and 20 were injured, Afghan media reported. Photos from the protest show a man carrying a placard with the words "Down with America. Down with Obama" written on it. The Taliban denied it was responsible for the attack. The governor's office permitted the demonstration to take place, but both local Afghans and sources familiar with the event feel that hard-line elements infiltrated the crowd, causing it to become violent.

The attack on the UN compound in Mazar-i-Sharif was one of the bloodiest in the organization's history in Afghanistan. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the attack as "outrageous and cowardly" and said that it "cannot be justified under any circumstances." U.S. President Barack Obama echoed that statement, condemning the attack "in the strongest possible terms" and added that, "We stress the importance of calm and urge all parties to reject violence and resolve differences through dialogue." UNAMA spokesman Dan McNorton emphasized that the UN would not pull out of the country, saying that the UN remains "committed to supporting the Afghan people and to ensuring that they are able to obtain a better life. We remain committed to the cause of peace."

A Koran burning on March 20 in Gainesville, Fla., at the Dove World Outreach Center, the church of Pastor Terry Jones, sparked the protests, which were held in Herat and Kabul as well as Kandahar on Saturday. Jones, the head of a once obscure church, ignited international outrage in 2010 when he called for a Koran burning to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.

In the minds of people in Mazar-i-Sharif, the attack on the UN compound brought into question Afghan President Hamid Karzai's March 21 announcement that security responsibilities for that city and a handful of others across the country would be entirely handed over to Afghan National Security Forces by July as part of the larger transition scheduled to be completed in 2014.

"For the past two years we have not had any serious security issues in Mazar-i-Sharif. The city was shocked that this happened here," said a young Afghan man who works for an international aid organization in the city and whose house is near the UNAMA compound. He spoke on condition of anonymity. "Maybe this attack will cause a delay in the security handover. There were very many police at the UNAMA gate and they could do nothing. They could not control the crowd," he said. "Maybe it means the international security forces cannot leave."