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U.N. Staffers Killed As Afghans Protest Quran Burning

Afghans chant anti-U.S. slogans during a demonstration   in Mazar-i-Sharif, north of Kabul, on Friday.
Mustafa Najafizada
Afghans chant anti-U.S. slogans during a demonstration in Mazar-i-Sharif, north of Kabul, on Friday.

Seven United Nations staffers were killed when a mob of people enraged over the burning of a Quran stormed a U.N. office in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Friday.

Four Afghan protesters also died, officials said.

Afghan officials said about 2,000 people were protesting peacefully outside the office after learning that a Florida pastor had burned a copy of the Muslim holy book. Afghan authorities suspect insurgents melded into the crowd and they announced the arrest of more than 20 people, including a militant they suspect was the ringleader of the assault.

The suspect was an insurgent from Kapisa province, a hotbed of militancy about 250 miles southeast of the city, said Rawof Taj, deputy provincial police chief.

NPR's Quil Lawrence said protests broke out in several cities after Friday sermons.

"A lot of people here get their news on Fridays at the mosque and so this was the first Friday where imams had a chance to preach against what they had heard — this report of a burning of their holy book," Lawrence said. "So imams around the country in major cities called for peaceful protests, and in fact hundreds of people did march here in Kabul and the city in the west of Herat. In Mazar, the protest turned violent."

The topic of Quran-burning stirred outrage among millions of Muslims and others worldwide after the Rev. Terry Jones' small church, Dove Outreach Center, threatened to destroy a copy of the holy book last year. The pastor in Gainesville, Fla., had backed down but the church went through with the burning last month.

In the U.S., President Obama released a statement condemning the attack on the U.N. complex.

"The brave men and women of the United Nations, including the Afghan staff, undertake their work in support of the Afghan people," Obama said. "Their work is essential to building a stronger Afghanistan for the benefit of all its citizens."

U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain LeRoy said the top U.N. envoy in Afghanistan, Staffan De Mistura, who is in Mazar-i-Sharif, believes "the U.N. was not the target."

"They wanted to find an international target and the U.N. was the one there in Mazar-i-Sharif," LeRoy told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York.

Initially, Afghan police reported that eight foreigners had been killed in Mazar-i-Sharif. Late Friday, Dan McNorton, a spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan in Kabul, revised the death toll to seven — four foreign security guards and three other foreigners.

The guards were from Nepal, according to Gen. Daud Daud, commander of Afghan National Police in several northern provinces.

Sweden Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said Joakim Dungel, a 33-year-old Swede who worked at the U.N. office, was among those killed. Norwegian Defense Ministry spokeswoman Maj. Heidi Langvik-Hansen said Lt. Col. Siri Skare, a 53-year-old female pilot working for the U.N., also died in the attack.

LeRoy said the other victim was a citizen of Romania and that a number of U.N. personnel were injured and were being evacuated.

Munir Ahmad Farhad, a spokesman in Balkh province, said the protest began peacefully when several hundred demonstrators gathered outside the U.N. mission's compound, choosing an obvious symbol of the international community's involvement in Afghanistan to denounce the Quran's desecration. It turned violent when some protesters seized the guards' weapons and started shooting, then the crowds stormed the building and set fires that sent plumes of black smoke into the air, he said.

One protester, Ahmad Gul, a 32-year-old teacher in the city, gave a different account. He said the protesters disarmed three guards to prevent any violence from breaking out. Associated Press video showed protesters banging AK-47 rifles on the curb, breaking them into pieces. He said the protesters were killed and wounded by Afghan security forces.

"I disarmed three guards myself and we took out the bullets," Gul said, sternly shaking his finger as he shouted. "With my eyes, I saw them [Afghan security forces] kill two and wound 10." As he talked, he became increasingly indignant and he started shouting: "Death to America!"

LeRoy, the U.N. peacekeeping chief, said the security guards, all Gurkhas, "tried their best" but were unable to prevent the large number of demonstrators, some armed, from storming the U.N. compound.

The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting late Friday and condemned the attack "in the strongest terms."

The U.N.'s most powerful body also condemned "all incitement to and acts of violence" and called on the Afghan government to bring those responsible to justice and take steps to protect U.N. personnel and premises.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is in Nairobi, said it was "an outrageous and cowardly attack against U.N. staff, which cannot be justified under any circumstances and I condemn in the strongest possible terms."

LeRoy said U.N. officials would be reviewing security for U.N. personnel in Afghanistan.

The Florida church's website stated that after a five-hour trial on March 20, the Quran "was found guilty and a copy was burned inside the building." A picture on the website shows a book in flames in a small portable fire pit.

The church confirmed Friday that the Quran had been burned.

In a statement, Jones did not comment on whether his act had led to the deaths. Instead, he said it was time to "hold Islam accountable" and called on the United States and the U.N. to hold "these countries and people accountable for what they have done as well as for any excuses they may use to promote their terrorist activities."

At the U.S. State Department, spokesman Mark Toner said the burning of a Quran in Florida was contrary to Americans' respect for Islam and religious tolerance. "This is an isolated act done by a small group of people and ... does not reflect the respect the people of the United States have toward Islam," he said.

Last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued a statement calling the burning a "crime against a religion." He denounced the U.N. attack as a "disrespectful and abhorrent act" and called on the U.S. and the United Nations to bring to justice those who burned the holy book. Karzai issued a statement late Friday calling the killings an "inhumane act" that was "against the values of Islam and Afghans."

The U.N. has been the target of previous attacks. In October 2010, a suicide car bomber and three armed militants wearing explosives vests and dressed as women attacked a U.N. compound in Herat in western Afghanistan. Afghan security forces killed the attackers and no U.N. employees were harmed. In October 2009, Taliban militants attacked a guesthouse used by United Nations workers in central Kabul. Eight people were killed, including five foreigners working for the U.N.

Also Friday, U.S. officials said six American soldiers had been killed this week during an ongoing operation in Afghanistan's northeastern province of Kunar, where Taliban fighters continue to cross over the mountainous border from Pakistan.

NPR's Quil Lawrence reported from Kabul for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press

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NPR Staff and Wires