The protests have tapped into a well of frustration among many Afghans about the decade-long presence of U.S. and international troops on their soil. The sentiments expressed in signs and chants have denounced America and President Obama and called on troops to leave the country.
The Taliban has played a murky role in the protests so far. Afghan and Western officials allege its fighters have infiltrated crowds to encourage violence, but it has been content in public statements to cheer on the protesters without claiming responsibility for the unrest.
The demonstrations have also been fueled by mullahs, who in their Friday sermons took a cue from President Hamid Karzai’s denunciation of pastor Terry Jones’s church four days after the Koran was burned. Afghan mosques — even mainstream, publicly funded ones — have emerged as a powerful anti-American voice in the country, and the imams regularly call for U.S. troops to withdraw.
The protests in Kandahar began Saturday morning with a few hundred people in a downtown bazaar not far from the offices of the provincial government. As the protesters moved around the city, the crowds grew larger. Some protesters said they had intended to approach the local U.N. office but were blocked by Afghan security forces.
Some of the participants were armed with guns and sticks and waving white flags, the banner of the Taliban. They set fire to a girls’ high school and torched buses and cars. Shops were shuttered, and security forces blocked roads to try to quell the violence.
The police opened fire on the crowds, the protesters said. The city’s provincial director of public health, Abdul Qayoum Pukhla, said all of the injured who came or were brought to Kandahar hospitals had suffered gunshot wounds.
“We’re still receiving wounded people,” he said after hours of violence.
The provincial police chief, Khan Mohammad Mojayed, denied that his men were firing on protesters, saying they were shooting in the air to disperse the crowd.
“The police have to protect the civilians,” he said. “Among the protesters, there were also some armed men with sticks and guns. They were stopping the cars and damaging them and opening fire.”
The provincial governor’s office issued a statement blaming the mayhem on “wicked and destructive people” among the protesters but endorsed people’s right to condemn the Koran burning.