Afghanistan has seen its worst violence in months after almost 20 people were killed over the weekend in protests over the burning of the Quran by fundamentalist US pastor Terry Jones.
The dead included seven staff at a UN mission in the normally quiet city of Mazar-i-Sharif, who were killed on Friday when several thousand demonstrators stormed the compound after prayers.
Four Nepalese guards at the entrance were killed while three Europeans from Sweden, Romania and Norway were shot after unsuccessfully attempting to barricade themselves in a secure room. Reports in the UK press claimed that two of the victims were also beheaded, while the third had his throat cut.
AFP meanwhile reported that the Russian head of the UN office survived by speaking in the local dialect and pretending to be Muslim.
Ten protesters were killed in a demonstration the following day in Kandahar, and 53 were injured.
Speaking to Reuters, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied that the insurgents were involved in the attack on the UN.
“The Taliban had nothing to do with this, it was a pure act of responsible Muslims,” Mujahid said. “The foreigners brought the wrath of the Afghans on themselves by burning the Quran.”
Jones, who leads a small congregation in Florida, became the centre of a global media storm in September 2010 after threatening to burn the Quran in opposition to plans to construct an Islamic centre near the former site of the World Trade Centre. He was eventually persuaded to refrain from burning the Quran after phone calls from the US State Department, and US Defence Secretary Robert Gates.
However on March 20, 2010, receiving little attention from the US media, Jones proceeded with the burning and uploaded the footage to the Internet, with Arabic subtitles.
The Washington Post reported Jones as admitting he had reneged on his promise not to burn the Quran: “If you want to be technical,” he told the newspaper, “I guess we broke our word.”
News of the burning later erupted across Afghanistan after President Hamid Karzai condemned Jones’ burning of the Quran ahead of Friday prayers.
The US is already grappling with the fallout of a recent article in Rolling Stone magazine and German newspaper Der Spiegel, concerning a rogue army unit in Afghanistan accused of killing three Afghan civilians for sport and cutting off their fingers as trophies. Five soldiers have been charged with murder and are being tried in a military court.
In the wake of events this weekend, US President Barack Obama said that “The desecration of any holy text, including the Quran, is an act of extreme intolerance and bigotry. However, to attack and kill innocent people in response is outrageous, and an affront to human decency and dignity.”
The UN’s Envoy to Afghanisatan, Staffan de Mistura, described the burning as an “insane and totally despicable gesture”.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon meanwhile condemned the killing of the UN staff as “an outrageous and cowardly attack which cannot be justified under any circumstances.”
The Washington Post meanwhile reported that in the wake of publicity surrounding the Quran burning Jones’ had been ostracised by his community, his congregation and income had plummeted, and both his Internet service provider and insurance company had cancelled their services.