U.N. death toll in Afghan attack may hit 20: officials

UNITED NATIONS Fri Apr 1, 2011 1:55pm EDT

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations death toll in an attack on the U.N. compound in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif could be as high as 20, U.N. officials told Reuters on Friday.

That figure, which is likely to change, includes international and local staff, U.N. guards and Nepalese Gurkha soldiers hired to protect the compound, U.N. officials said on condition of anonymity.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Nairobi that the attack was "outrageous and cowardly."

The deaths came after protesters demonstrating against the burning of Islam's holy book, the Koran, over-ran the U.N. compound, police said.

Two of the dead were beheaded by attackers who also burned parts of the compound and climbed up blast walls to topple a guard tower, said Lal Mohammad Ahmadzai, a police spokesman for the northern region.

If confirmed, it would be the highest ever loss of life in an attack on the United Nations in Afghanistan. The worst previous attack was an insurgent assault on a guesthouse where U.N. staff were staying in October 2009. Five U.N. staffers were killed and nine others wounded.

In October 2010, several militants were killed when they attempted to ambush the U.N. compound in Herat dressed in burkas worn by women.

There have been other assaults on the world body in troublespots in the Middle East and North Africa.

A bomb attack on the U.N. compound in Algiers in December 2007 killed 17 U.N. staff. The bombing of a hotel in Baghdad in August 2003 where the U.N. mission had its headquarters took the lives of at least 22 people, including U.N. special envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Jackie Frank)

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