KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai appealed for calm Wednesday after officials said six people were shot dead and dozens wounded in protests over the burning of copies of the Koran, Islam’s holy book, at NATO’s main base in the country.
The U.S. embassy said its staff were in “lockdown” and travel had been suspended as thousands of people expressed fury over the burning, in protests that flared for a second day in several cities.
It was a public relations disaster for U.S.-led NATO forces fighting Taliban militants ahead of the withdrawal of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.
The U.S. government and the American commander of NATO-led forces in Afghanistan apologized after Afghan laborers found charred copies of the Koran while collecting rubbish at the sprawling Bagram Airbase, about an hour’s drive north of Kabul.
The apologies failed to contain the anger. Afghans took to the streets again, chanting anti-American slogans and some raising white Taliban flags in the capital.
Karzai urged security forces to try to protect civilian lives and property.
“Protests are the right of people but I ask my countrymen to avoid violence,” he said in a statement, urging people to wait for the outcome of investigations into the burnings.
Winning the hearts and minds of Afghans is critical to efforts to defeat the Taliban. Similar incidents in the past have caused deep divisions and resentment among Afghans toward the tens of thousands of foreign troops in their country.
Seven foreign UN workers were killed during protests that raged across Afghanistan for three days in April 2011 after a U.S. pastor burned a Koran in Florida.
A senior Afghan security official, citing reports from police, told Reuters that Western security contractors working at a U.S. military camp in Kabul opened fire on protesters and wounded several.
Witness Rahimullah, 17, said his brother, Ghafar, 23, was shot by one of the contractors in the right leg when he was throwing stones during the demonstration.
The Afghan Interior Ministry said it had ordered an investigation into the shooting.
“As a result of shooting at protesters by foreign guards at Camp Phoenix, one person was killed and 10 others were wounded,” the ministry said in an emailed statement.
Later, wounded protesters along the busy Jalalabad road on the fringe of Kabul said Afghan police had fired on them.
Twenty-one people, including 11 policemen, were wounded in the capital, said Mohammad Zahir, head of Kabul police’s crimes unit. They included the city police chief, Ayoub Salangi, who was hit in the ankle by a stone.
In Parwan province, home to Bagram, four people were shot dead by Afghan police and 10 were wounded while attacking offices, provincial officials and the interior ministry said.
A protester was shot dead by police in Logar province, east of the capital, the governor’s spokesman said. Hundreds protested in front of the governor’s office. Some threw stones.
Critics say Western troops often fail to grasp the country’s religious and cultural sensitivities. Muslims consider the Koran the literal word of God and treat each book with deep reverence.
Demonstrations by as many as 2,000 people broke out as word of the Bagram find spread.
Police said most injuries were caused by flying stones and sticks hurled by protesters. Demonstrators had charged police lines and nearby military bases at a protest on the edge of Kabul, burning tires and smashing vehicles and building windows.
Protesters shouted “Death to America!” and “Death to Karzai” as black smoke rose over a large demonstration on the outskirts of the snowy Afghan capital.
“When the Americans insult us to this degree, we will join the insurgents,” said Ajmal, an 18-year-old protester in Kabul.
Demonstrators set fire to part of a housing compound used by foreign contract workers. A Reuters witness said the fire damaged part of a guesthouse at the Green Village complex, where 1,500 mostly foreign contractors live and work.
Outrage also spilled over in the Afghan parliament, where several members shouted “Death to America” inside the legislative chamber.
The protests spread to several cities.
In Jalalabad, to the east, some protesters burned U.S. flags and also shouted “Death to America.” Others set ablaze fuel tankers near the city’s airport.
Demonstrators praised the leader of the Afghan Taliban, the secretive Mullah Mohammad Omar, screaming “Long live Mullah Omar!,” Reuters witnesses said. Five people were wounded, the governor’s spokesman said.
In neighboring Pakistan’s largest city Karachi, around 100 Islamic seminary students protested against the Koran burnings.
“Pakistan’s government should summon the American ambassador and demand an apology. And if he doesn’t apologize, he should be kicked out of the country,” said Abdul Basit, a protest leader.
Others took a harder line.
“No forgiveness for the desecrators of the Koran,” a section of the crowd shouted. “Only death.”
Additional reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman in KABUL and Imtiaz Shah in KARACHI; Writing by Rob Taylor; Editing by Michael Georgy and Ron Popeski