'Newsweek' Article Gives Rise to Violent Protests in Afghanistan

Several protesters have been killed and several dozen injured in Afghanistan because of anti-American protests that have flared up following a story in Newsweek magazine that said American personnel at Guantanamo Bay detention facilities had desecrated the Koran. Robert Siegel talks with Carlotta Gall of the New York Times.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

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

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Several protesters have been killed and several dozen injured in Afghanistan. They were protesting against the United States, and their demonstrations were put down by Afghan police and the army. The anti-American protests were evidently triggered by a story in Newsweek that American personnel at Guantanamo desecrated the Koran, flushing a copy down a toilet. Reporter Carlotta Gall of The New York Times is in Kabul.

And, Carlotta Gall, how widespread are the protests in Afghanistan?

Ms. CARLOTTA GALL (The New York Times): Well, they spread today. We had very bad violence yesterday in Jalalabad in the east of the country. Today, it's spread across the center of the country. In a couple of places south of Kabul we had violence. We had a big demonstration in Kabul, the capital, this morning, but it passed peacefully.

SIEGEL: These protests, it's reported, were at least ignited by the Newsweek report, but it sounds as though there must be some other grievance at work other than one magazine article.

Ms. GALL: Well, I think it's what the magazine article said, which is that US interrogators placed a Koran in a toilet and even flushed one down a toilet. That really has incensed all Afghans, I think, whether they're moderates or fundamentalists. I think this started with student protests, but the authorities feel that people have tried to hijack the rather innocent student protests, and it's hard to know what is the hand behind it, if there are more militant groups perhaps jumping on the feelings of the people and pushing it further into violent actions.

SIEGEL: The president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, said this in Brussels. He said all of this demonstrates that Afghanistan's institutions--the police, the army--are not ready to handle this sort of thing, such protests. Is he right?

Ms. GALL: I think it's true in that the police don't have much training in riot control, and what they do is fire in the air to try and disperse the crowds and that doesn't always end up very successfully. And, in fact, yesterday we had a lot of people, over 60, injured, many of them, I think, from flying bullets. It's not the ideal way of crowd control, and the police are just acting in any way they can.

SIEGEL: Have you been able to piece together how this particular article, which was so inflammatory, became so well-known in Afghanistan?

Ms. GALL: Well, this is where some people suspect fundamentalist groups of stirring things up, because the US military have reminded me that this was known already several months ago, this allegation, so why it's been picked up now and created such a fuss is not very clear. Someone might be working on it. But I think for your average Afghan, they've heard it when it hit the radio programs in their own language. And people are very intense, and they're demanding that the interrogators be arrested and tried for desecrating the Koran.

SIEGEL: And the US has said that it will investigate these allegations of abuses at Guantanamo. Has that commitment been published much in Afghanistan?

Ms. GALL: I think the US Embassy has put out a statement, but I think it's the act, the original act, that upset the Afghans. They're not in the mood at the moment to be mollified by promises of investigation at this stage.

SIEGEL: Carlotta Gall, thanks a lot for talking with us today.

Ms. GALL: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Carlotta Gall, reporter for The New York Times, speaking to us from Kabul, Afghanistan.

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