Anti-U.S. Violence Erupts in Afghanistan
Thursday, May 12, 2005
JALALABAD, Afghanistan, May 11 -- Shouting "Death to America!" more than 1,000 demonstrators rioted and threw stones at a U.S. military convoy Wednesday, as protests spread over a report that interrogators desecrated Islam's holy book at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Police fired on the protesters, trying to stifle the biggest display of anti-American anger since the ouster of the radical Taliban militia in 2001. Officials said the violence left four Afghans dead and 71 injured in Jalalabad, a city 80 miles east of the capital, Kabul. There were no reports of U.S. casualties.
Mobs smashed car and shop windows and attacked government offices, the Pakistani Consulate and the offices of two U.N. agencies. Smoke billowed from the consulate and a U.N. building. More than 50 foreign aid workers were reportedly evacuated.
In neighboring Pakistan, the government said it was "deeply dismayed" by the reports about Guantanamo, while hard-line Islamic parties said they would hold nationwide demonstrations Friday. Many of the 520 inmates held at Guantanamo are Pakistanis and Afghans.
President Hamid Karzai played down the violence, which came as Afghan and U.S. troops are battling a reinvigorated Taliban insurgency.
"It is not the anti-American sentiment, it is a protest over news of the desecration of the holy Koran," Karzai told reporters in Brussels. He said Afghanistan was now a democracy in which demonstrations were allowed, but that security forces were not yet prepared to handle them.
The immediate source of anger was a report in the May 9 edition of Newsweek magazine that interrogators at Guantanamo placed Korans on toilets to rattle suspects and in at least one case "flushed a holy book down the toilet."
A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Flex Plexico, said the U.S. military was investigating. "This allegation is contrary to our respect for cultural customs and fundamental belief in the freedom of religion," Plexico said.
Observers said conservative clerics had been agitating in mosques before the unrest erupted Tuesday. The crowds grew Wednesday, when several thousand people marched through the city, attacking buildings and stoning U.S. military vehicles.
The U.S. troops fired into the air and left the scene, Afghan officials said. But TV footage showed Afghan troops firing low over the heads of demonstrators. The Interior Ministry said four people were killed, two of them shot dead.
Students held similar protests in three other provinces, but there were no reports of violence.
An Afghan opposition leader said the demonstration reflected frustration at the United States and Karzai's plans for long-term U.S. military ties. Karzai is scheduled to visit Washington this month.
Afghans have complained of abusive searches and civilian deaths during U.S. operations. Some Afghans released from Guantanamo have accused their jailers of defacing Korans and other forms of abuse.
State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher said Wednesday that U.S. personnel at Guantanamo were trained to protect the rights and dignity of detainees and that Muslim detainees are given regular opportunities to worship.