Afghan Rioters Reportedly Kill U.N. Office Workers

Afghan protesters stormed and burned the U.N. office in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif Friday after a demonstration condemning a Quran-burning at a small church in Florida. There are reports of deaths inside the U.N. compound. Michele Norris speaks with NPR's Quil Lawrence.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

At least seven United Nations staff were killed today in Afghanistan. Demonstrators in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif stormed the U.N. compound. Four Afghan demonstrators were also killed.

NORRIS: Afghan authorities say the rioters were incensed by last week's burning of a Quran by a radical preacher in Gainesville, Florida.

And NPR's Kabul bureau chief, Quil Lawrence, is on the line with us.

And, Quil, what more can you tell about these violent protests?

QUIL LAWRENCE: Well, it's already quite late at night here, and precise details will probably come tomorrow morning. But officials in Mazar say that worshipers from the city's largest mosque left after the Friday sermon and started what was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration.

They went to the nearby U.N. compound, and then it turned violent. It's possible some of them took weapons away from the guards at the compound, or there could have been some weapons in the crowd.

By the end of the evening, several Afghan protesters were dead, and several United Nations foreign security staff as well as staff inside the compound were also dead.

NORRIS: I just want to be clear about something. This Quran burning in Florida was done by the same church that had threatened to burn the Quran last year. This time, they actually did it on March 20th. So why is the reaction in Afghanistan coming more than a week later?

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

NORRIS: And is there any explanation about why the protests turned so violent there?

LAWRENCE: Several sources have claimed there could have been armed agitators in the crowd. Insurgents who wanted to take advantage of the situation. There have been arrests, but it's not impossible that this is just rage at a Quran being desecrated.

Religious scholars here and even President Karzai early in the week had called for pastor - the preacher in Florida, Pastor Terry Jones, to be tried and punished.

And in the past here, just the rumor of a Quran being burned or desecrated has caused riots with many fatalities. This is a country where courts have handed down death sentences for cases of blasphemy or conversion from Islam in recent years.

I should add that President Karzai's office has condemned these riots in Mazar, said that these were innocent victims who had nothing to do with the situation in Florida.

NORRIS: And we should say that this news does come at a time - at the same time as a Pentagon announcement that six U.S. soldiers died this week in northeast Afghanistan. Can you tell us anything more about that?

LAWRENCE: There's fierce fighting that continues in Kunar province, in the northeast along the Pakistani border. And American officials say that six U.S. soldiers died this week in an operation to clear an area along the border.

The general in charge of the operation said that it's been successful, but there is something in the name of the mission, which is called Strong Eagle III. And this is at least the third time U.S. troops have moved up this valley.

I was actually embedded with them in the same valley in the fall when insurgents disabled a U.S. helicopter right along the Pakistani border.

And so far, they haven't been able to come up with a solution with Afghan soldiers, with Afghan border police that can close this mountainous porous border where insurgents are still managing to come over from safe havens within Pakistan.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence speaking to us from Kabul, Afghanistan.

Quil, thank you very much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: And as for the church responsible for the burning of the Quran, Pastor Jones in Florida issued a statement which included this: We must 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.

And again, that was a quote from Pastor Jones in Florida.

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