At least seven die in Afghan protests over mistaken Koran-burning
REPORTING FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- Anti-American protests flared for a second day Wednesday over the inadvertent burning of copies of the Koran by U.S. personnel at a military base north of Kabul, and at least seven people were killed in the ongoing violence, Afghanistan's Interior Ministry said.
U.S. officials worked to contain the damaging fallout from the incident, which came at a difficult and delicate juncture of the decade-old war.
In demonstrations that spread to several locales across the country, hundreds of Afghans burned tires, threw stones and chanted "Death to America!" Foreign embassies and organizations urged Westerners in the capital and elsewhere to keep a low profile.
The unrest erupted after Afghan laborers at the sprawling Bagram airfield spotted bags containing copies of the Koran among trash that was bound for the installation’s giant incinerator. They managed to prevent some of the copies from being burned, but showed the scorched remnants of others to people living near the base, prompting a groundswell of outrage.
On Tuesday, hours after the incident came to light, the top American commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, apologized profusely and ordered immediate training for all Western troops on the proper handling of religious materials.
Nearly a year ago, another Koran-burning episode -- this one deliberate, staged by a fundamentalist preacher in Florida -- set off a violent reaction in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Seven foreign U.N. workers were killed when their compound was overrun.
Wednesday's protests took place at several symbolic sites: outside a U.S. base on the eastern edge of the capital, known as Camp Phoenix; near the Afghan parliament building; and along the main highway connecting the capital to the Pakistan border.
The Interior Ministry said four of the deaths occurred in Parwan province, the site of the Bagram base. Deaths were also reported in Kabul, the eastern city of Jalalabad and in Logar province, outside the capital. More than two dozen people were injured, some seriously, the ministry said.
The episode has roiled already tense relations between the U.S. military and the Afghan government. President Hamid Karzai has long chastised the NATO force for what he calls a persistent failure to respect Afghan cultural norms.
Even some Afghans who said they believed the action had been the result of error, not malice, found it difficult to accept Allen's apology.
"They are careless with our holy things, and they are careless with our country," said a grim-faced Wali Aziz, who closed down his shop early, fearing crowds might try to march on the nearby complex housing the U.S. Embassy.
An investigation was quickly launched to determine -- among other things -- why the holy books, previously used by detainees at a large military prison adjoining the Bagram base, were being discarded. U.S. military officials speaking on condition of anonymity said prisoners were passing the Korans and other religious texts back and forth with messages written in them.
-- Laura King
Photo: Two men try to help an injured protester during an anti-U.S. demonstration in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Credit: Rahmat Gul / Associated Press