KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - At least 10 people have been killed and 83 wounded in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, officials said on Saturday, on a second day of violent protests over the burning of a Koran by a radical fundamentalist Christian in the United States.
A suicide attack also hit a NATO military base in the capital Kabul, the day after protesters over-ran a United Nations mission in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and killed seven foreign staff, in the deadliest attack on the U.N. in Afghanistan.
Some protesters in Kandahar carried white Taliban flags and shouted slogans including “long live the Taliban” and “death to America.” In rioting that lasted hours, they smashed shops, burned tires and vandalized a girl’s high school.
Two of the dead were Afghan policemen, an official said.
The violence is the worst in Afghanistan in months and came as the country geared up for the first stage of a years-long security handover to Afghan troops, and after the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, delivered an optimistic assessment of progress in the war.
Top U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura said the United Nations would review security arrangements but would not be leaving the country because of Friday’s attack.
“This should not deter the U.N. presence (and) activities in this country in this delicate and particularly crucial period,” he told a small group of journalists after flying back from Mazar-i-Sharif with the bodies of his dead colleagues.
The protesters were driven by anger at the actions of extremist Christian preacher Terry Jones who supervised the burning of the Koran in front of about 50 people at a church in Florida on March 20, according to his website.
In an interview with Reuters on Saturday, Jones was unrepentant and defiantly vowed to lead an anti-Islam protest outside the biggest mosque in the United States later this month.
U.S. President Barack Obama denounced the act of burning a Koran but did not mention Jones by name.
“The desecration of any holy text, including the Koran, is an act of extreme intolerance and bigotry,” Obama said in a statement released by the White House on Saturday. “However, to attack and kill innocent people in response is outrageous, and an affront to human decency and dignity.”
The burning initially passed relatively unnoticed in Afghanistan, but after criticism from President Hamid Karzai, and calls for justice during Friday sermons, thousands poured into the streets in several cities to denounce Jones.
Afghan and UN officials said insurgents had incited violence at peaceful protests. Marches in Kabul, the western city of Herat and northern Tahar province ended without unrest.
But the Taliban denied any role in the Mazar attack or Kandahar protests and analysts warned against underestimating the depth of anti-Western sentiment in much of Afghanistan, after years of military presence and many civilian casualties.
“Insurgent provocation is not necessary for things like (the UN attack) to happen, because indeed the mood and atmosphere in a large part of the population is like this,” said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
“Anger over foreigners in general, which has probably spread from the military to NGOs and the UN and other actors, just needs a little spark and things can be set alight.”
In Kabul on Saturday, a group of burkha-clad insurgents attacked a coalition base, although they caused only light injuries to three soldiers, police and NATO said.
In Kandahar, one of the policemen killed and several civilians died from gunshot wounds, said Abdul Qayum Pukhla, the senior health official for the province. The rest of the dead had been beaten and stoned he added.
It was not clear if gunshot wounds were caused by protesters or police trying to control them over hours of rioting.
A band of around 150 men who had taken to the streets to denounce the Koran burning set tires alight, smashed shops and assaulted an Afghan photographer, Reuters’ witnesses said. Some of the attackers were carrying guns.
The photographer was hit over the head and had his camera taken from him and smashed, by protesters who discussed killing him. Police kept other journalists from approaching the crowd.
In the violence they also broke windows and burned chairs at the Zarghona High School for girls. The Taliban opposed girls’ education, and Kandahar was their spiritual heartland.
The spokesman for the governor of Kandahar province said the protest was organized by the Taliban who used the Koran burning as an excuse to incite violence in a city where their reach has been curtailed by an aggressive NATO-led military campaign.
The Taliban said they had no role in the Kandahar violence or Friday’s assault on the U.N. office in the usually peaceful city of Mazar-i-Sharif, after both provincial governors and the U.N.’s de Mistura suggested an insurgent role.
“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, referring to the Mazar attack. He later added that the Kandahar demonstration was also spontaneous.
Several 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.
They overwhelmed security guards there, burned parts of the compound and climbed blast walls to topple a guard tower. The throat of one of the slain foreigners had been 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. Some were horrified by the extreme violence but not all had sympathy for the foreign dead.
“I took part in the demonstration to curse the foreigners, but I had no weapon,” shopkeeper Rahim Mohammad said.
“But I don’t feel sorry for U.N. workers killed, our people are slaughtered by foreigners everyday.”
More volatile protests are possible across deeply religious Afghanistan, where anti-Western sentiment has been fueled for years by civilian casualties, and the Taliban.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in KABUL, Mohammad Bashir in MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Jeff Mason in Washington and Yusila Ramirez in Gainesville, Florida; Writing by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Andrew Marshall and Paul Simao