MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan A suicide attack hit Kabul and a violent demonstration against Koran-burning rattled the southern city of Kandahar the day after the worst ever attack on the United Nations in Afghanistan, which killed seven foreign staff.
The Taliban said they had no role in Friday's assault on the U.N. office in the usually peaceful northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, after both the provincial governor and a senior U.N. official suggested provocateurs among the crowd had sparked or led the vicious attack.
"The Taliban had nothing to do with this, it was a pure act of responsible Muslims," spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said by phone from an undisclosed location.
"The foreigners brought the wrath of the Afghans on themselves by burning the Koran."
Thousands of demonstrators flooded into the streets of a city considered safe enough to be in the vanguard of a crucial security transition, after Friday prayers ended, and many headed straight for the U.N. mission.
There they overwhelmed security guards, burned parts of the compound and climbed blast walls to topple a guard tower. The throat of one of the dead foreigners was slit, the U.N. said.
Five Afghan protesters were also killed and others wounded, some after trying to take weapons off U.N. security guards.
The attack took many in the city, one of the country's most prosperous and stable, by surprise and some demonstrators said they had not expected the extreme violence.
"It is our right to demonstrate because they burned our holy book, but I was not there to kill people," said 20-year old Habeebullah, who was wounded in one leg.
KABUL, KANDAHAR VIOLENCE
In Kabul on Saturday, a small group of burkha-clad insurgents attacked a coalition base, although they caused only light injuries to three soldiers, police and NATO-led troops said.
In southern Kandahar, the spiritual heartland of the Taliban movement, a band of around 150 men who had taken to the streets to denounce Koran burning set tyres alight, smashed up shops and attacked a photographer.
The reporter was hit over the head and had his camera taken from him and smashed. Police kept other journalists from approaching the crowd, which was shouting slogans including "death to America."
More protests are possible across volatile and deeply religious Afghanistan, where anti-Western sentiment has been fueled for years by civilian casualties.
The United Nations has clamped down on security, and may have to review its presence in Afghanistan, although a spokesman has said there is no possiblity it would pull out.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in KABUL and Ismail Sameem in KANDAHAR, writing by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Ron Popeski)