JALALABAD, Afghanistan – Demonstrators battled police in southern Afghanistan’s main city Sunday and took to the streets in the turbulent east for the first time as Western pleas failed to halt a third day of rage over a Florida pastor’s burning of the Quran.
An officer was shot dead in a second day of clashes in the city of Kandahar, said provincial health director Qayum Pokhla. Two officers and 18 civilians were wounded, he said.
In Jalalabad, the largest city in the east, hundreds of people blocked the main highway for three hours, shouting for U.S. troops to leave, burning an effigy of President Barack Obama and stomping on a drawing of a U.S. flag. More than 1,000 people set tires ablaze to block another highway in the eastern Parwan province for about an hour, said provincial police chief Sher Ahmad Maladani.
The violence was set off by anger over the March 20 burning of the Quran by a Florida church – the same church whose pastor threatened to do so last year on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks – that triggered worldwide outrage.
The protests, which began Friday, also appear to be fueled more broadly by the resentment that has been building for years in Afghanistan over the operations of Western military forces, blamed for killing and mistreating civilians, and international contractors, seen by many as enriching themselves and fueling corruption at the expense of ordinary Afghans.
Coverage of the trial of a group of U.S. soldiers charged with killing Afghan civilians, as well as the publication of photos of some posing with dead bodies, added to the anger.
Thousands of demonstrators in the previously peaceful northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif poured into the streets after Friday’s Muslim prayer services and overran a U.N. compound, killing three U.N. staff members and four Nepalese guards.
On Saturday, hundreds of Afghans holding copies of the Quran over their heads marched in Kandahar before attacking cars and businesses. Security forces opened fire and nine protesters were killed, but the governor of Kandahar said officers had only fired into the air. He said 81 were wounded and 17 people, including seven armed men, had been arrested.
Military commander Gen. David Petraeus and the top NATO civilian representative in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, said they “hope the Afghan people understand that the actions of a small number of individuals, who have been extremely disrespectful to the holy Quran, are not representative of any of the countries of the international community who are in Afghanistan to help the Afghan people.”
The Taliban said in a statement emailed to media outlets that the U.S. and other Western countries had wrongly excused the burning of the Quran as freedom of speech and that Afghans “cannot accept this un-Islamic act.”
“Afghan forces under the order of the foreign forces attacked unarmed people during the protests, killing them and arresting some, saying there were armed people among these protesters, which was not true,” the Taliban said.
The governor of Kandahar said he and the main leaders of the protests in the southern city had reached an agreement that would end the demonstrations in exchange for the release of those who were arrested. He said they released 25 people, but did not provide details.