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Koran burning incites deadly riots in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — Clashes between Afghan troops and protesters angry over the burning of Muslim holy books at a U.S. military base left at least seven people dead and dozens wounded Wednesday as anger spread despite U.S. apologies over what it said was a mistake.

The demonstrations across four eastern provinces illustrated the intensity of Afghans' anger at what they saw as foreign forces flouting their laws and insulting their culture.

The violence was also a reminder of how easily Afghan-U.S. relations can deteriorate as the two countries work to forge a long-term partnership ahead of the withdrawal of foreign forces in 2014.

The unrest started Tuesday when Afghan workers at the main American military base, Bagram Air Field, saw soldiers dumping books in a pit where garbage is burned and noticed Korans and other religious material among the trash.

The top U.S. and NATO commander, Gen. John Allen, quickly issued an apology and telephoned President Hamid Karzai and major news organizations to explain that a collection of religious materials, including Korans, had been mistakenly sent to be incinerated. As soon as someone realized what they were burning, they stopped and retrieved what was left, Allen said.

Four copies of the Koran were burned before the incineration was halted, according to initial Afghan government reports.

Anger about the burning spread overnight. A single demonstration outside the Bagram base on Tuesday gave way to three protests in the capital, Kabul, on Wednesday, along with demonstrations in the major eastern city of Jalalabad and in Logar and Parwan province, where Bagram is located.

In Kabul, about 2,000 people massed outside a heavily guarded housing complex for foreigners, chanting "Death to America!" as they hurled rocks at the compound's reinforced walls and set a fuel truck ablaze.

Eighteen-year-old Mohammad Shaker said he heard about the Koran burning Tuesday, and he and other members of his mosque decided to take to the streets Wednesday after morning prayers.

"This is not the first time they're doing these things," Shaker said. "They are killing civilians and taking photos of them. Every day they kill civilians with airstrikes. We can't accept their crimes in our country."

The demonstrations prompted the United States to lock down its embassy and bar its staff from traveling.

By nightfall, seven people had been killed and dozens were wounded, the Interior Ministry said. In some cases, security guards or police were accused of shooting protesters, while in others, officials said the shooting started from within the mob of demonstrators.

The country's council of Muslim clerics called the apologies from U.S. authorities insufficient and said military officials should punish those responsible.

Afghanistan's president said he shared the Afghan people's pain at hearing of the Koran desecration, but called on Afghans to stay calm.

"The people have the right to protest peacefully, but I appeal to my countrymen not to resort to violence," Karzai said.

Koran burning incites deadly riots in Afghanistan 02/22/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 22, 2012 11:11pm]
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