KABUL — An angry mob killed at least seven foreigners in northern Afghanistan and set fire to a United Nations compound, as a protest over a Koran burning in Florida swelled into chaotic violence Friday, according to Afghan and Western officials.
The attack in Mazar-e Sharif, normally a bastion of calm, swelled out of a midday gathering called to denounce the actions of Terry Jones, a preacher in Gainesville, Fla., who burned the Islamic holy book on a grill last month. The Taliban had issued a statement blaming “American Rules” for Jones’s “crime.’’
Thousands of Afghan protesters, outraged over Florida pastor Terry Jones' orchestrated Koran burning, stormed the UN compound in Mazar-i-Sharif, resulting in a massacre that left 20 dead. (April 1)
Images from the Afghan war: Week of March 26, 2011: Continued photo coverage from the front lines of the U.S., Afghan, and NATO military effort in Afghanistan.
At least four protesters also were reported killed during the attack on the U.N. office.
President Obama condemned Friday’s killings “in the strongest possible terms” and urged calm and dialogue. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the attack “an outrageous and cowardly act.’’ Neither statement mentioned the burning of the Koran.
In September, Jones had stepped back from plans to burn the Koran, which he has deemed responsible for terrorist activities, after public criticism from U.S. faith leaders and warnings from the Obama administration. In contrast, the Koran burning that Jones carried out March 20 had attracted little attention, and the Obama administration appeared to have been taken by surprise by the issue’s sudden reemergence.
The episode could further inflame tensions in a turbulent Islamic world, at a time of mass protests in the Middle East and a period in which the Obama administration has tried to portray Afghanistan as moving steadily toward stability. Leaflets distributed in advance of Friday’s protests had called on Afghanistan to sever ties with the United States if Jones was not punished for his actions.
U.S. officials had been warned that the protest, scheduled to be held at the famed Blue Mosque in downtown Mazar-e Sharif, could turn violent, and they were told by security officials to avoid the area. At the midday prayers, hundreds gathered to hear the sermon and speeches denouncing the Koran burning, then surged south toward the U.N. headquarters as the crowd grew larger and more violent.
In the tumult, with police firing their weapons, some in the crowd broke into the U.N. office, past high walls and foreign and Afghan security guards, then torched guard towers and attacked and killed members of the U.N. staff, officials said. Among those killed were four Nepalese guards and at least three U.N. staff members, including a Swede, a Romanian and a Norwegian, according to a Western official briefed on the preliminary investigation.
U.N. buildings have been attacked in the past by insurgents, both in Kabul and in the western city of Herat, but the violence Friday marked a particularly grim chapter in the United Nations’ long history in Afghanistan. The U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, traveled to Mazar-e Sharif on Friday along with the mission’s security chief to deal with the aftermath of the attack. Afghan officials said five Afghan protesters were also killed and 20 were wounded.