REPORTING FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN, AND DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES -- The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan ordered all Western advisors withdrawn from Afghan government ministries Saturday after two American military officers were shot and killed in a heavily secured compound inside the Afghan Interior Ministry.
The abrupt pullout, a serious blow to strategic cooperation between the NATO coalition and the Afghan government, came as a fifth straight day of protests raged over the burning of Korans at a U.S. military base.
In the latest display of unrest, angry crowds laid siege to a provincial governor’s compound in eastern Afghanistan and a United Nations office in the country’s north.
Afghan authorities reported at least five more deaths, mainly in clashes between Afghan security forces and demonstrators, some of them armed.
Saturday’s fatalities brought the death toll since the riots broke out Tuesday to more than 30, four of them Americans, with hundreds more people injured. The outbreak of violence is one of the country’s most sustained instances of civil unrest in nearly a decade of conflict.
Calls for calm from Afghan officials and apologies from President Obama and the top U.S. general in Afghanistan have failed to quell the clashes, raising questions about the ability of the Afghan government and an international force numbering more than 100,000 troops to restore order.
Details of the killings of the two Americans Saturday remained murky hours after the shooting. NATO’s International Security Assistance Force confirmed the deaths of two of its service members in Kabul, without disclosing their nationalities, and Afghan officials speaking on condition of anonymity identified the two as American military officers who were advising the Interior Ministry.
A ministry spokesman, Sediq Siddiqi, said the officers’ bodies had been discovered in a command-and-control center used by foreign advisors, and that the assailant had apparently escaped. U.S. Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of Western troops in Afghanistan, vowed to "pursue all leads" to find the killer.
"The perpetrator of this attack is a coward whose actions will not go unanswered," he said in a statement.
Across Afghanistan, some of the day’s protests began peacefully but then escalated into armed confrontation. Hamdullah Daneshi, the deputy governor of Kunduz, in the country’s north, said a gathering of about 800 people was initially nonviolent but that some in the crowd, including gunmen, tried to overrun a U.N. office. The resulting clash left three dead and about a dozen injured, he said.
The U.N. said none of its staffs was hurt. The incident was reminiscent, however, of a deadly episode nearly a year ago, in which another U.N. regional headquarters, in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, was stormed by a mob protesting a fundamentalist Florida preacher's announcement that he planned to burn the Koran. Four Nepalese guards and three foreign U.N. workers were killed in that attack.
The U.N. mission thanked the Afghan security forces for defending the Kunduz compound, and expressed regret over the casualties. It reiterated respect for religious sentiments, but warned that violent demonstrations allowed "enemies of peace to take advantage of the situation."
In Laghman province, east of Kabul, hundreds of stone-throwing protesters tried to break into the governor’s compound but were driven back by Afghan police and soldiers, according to provincial authorities.
President Hamid Karzai, meanwhile, issued a new appeal for an end to the violence, urging demonstrators to express their sentiments through peaceful means. But walking a careful line, he also called on Afghan security forces to use "patience and self-restraint" in dealing with what he called "emotional protesters."
-- Hashmat Baktash and Laura King
Photo: A U.S. military convoy enters the Afghan Interior Ministry in Kabul on Saturday. A gunman killed two Americans inside the ministry, officials said, as protests against the burning of copies of the Koran roiled the country for a fifth day. Credit: Musadeq Sadeq / Associated Press