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Three More Killed As Afghan Riots Continue

Kabul, 12 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Reports say three more people have been killed in continuing protests in Afghanistan over claims that U.S. interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba desecrated the Koran, bring to seven the number of fatalities reported in three days of disturbances.

The violence has been largely centered in the eastern Afghan province of Nangahar, and its capital, Jalalabad.

Malik Mohammad Omar, the head of Khogyani District in eastern Nangarhar Province, told RFE/RL that two people were killed today in the district of Khogyani, near Jalalabad, in an exchange of gunfire between Afghan security forces and demonstrators:

"There were exchanges of fire between [the protesters and police], and two people were killed and one injured," Omar said.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Lutfullah Mashal, says another person died in disturbances in nearby Wardak Province.

Today's violence comes after similar protests in Jalalabad turned violent yesterday. Four people were killed and more than 70 others were injured in those clashes.

The protests were reportedly sparked by claims that U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay have been desecrating the Muslim holy book, the Koran. The allegations first appeared in "Newsweek" magazine and have led to widespread protests in the capital Kabul, in Laghman Province and Khost to the south, and in the southern city of Kandahar.

U.S. officials say that if the reports about the Quran are confirmed, the perpetrators will be punished.

The Afghan protests are taking place in as many as 10 provinces, and most have been peaceful, such as those today in Kabul. Several hundred students marched in the Afghan capital, chanting "Death to America" and similar anti-U.S. slogans.

University student Kaber Ahmad said the demonstrators want an apology from Washington:

"We urge our president [Afghan President Hamid Karzai] to ask U.S. President George W. Bush to apologize to Muslims all over the world about their action against our holy book, the Koran," he said. "We Muslims cannot tolerate this action."

After gathering at Kabul University, the students marched toward the city center. Police were present, but they kept their distance and did not intervene. There are no reports of clashes.

Some 100 students also held a peaceful demonstration today in eastern Takhar Province.

Trouble In Jalalabad

But the events in Jalalabad have been quite different. On 10 May, several thousand students took to the streets, where they burned an effigy of U.S. President George W. Bush.

By 11 May, the atmosphere was at boiling point. Demonstrators threw stones at homes, cars, and offices. They burned down the two-story government building. Then they set fire to offices of the United Nations and other international organizations. Afghan police and troops began shooting, killing up to four demonstrators and injuring some 70 others.

The UN says nonessential aid staff are being relocated from Jalalabad following the riots.

"UNAMA [United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan] strongly condemns the episode of violence in Jalalabad yesterday, in which a number of civilians have been killed or injured, and deplores the brutal attacks perpetrated against the premises of UNAMA, other UN agencies, as well as governmental, nongovernmental, and private organizations," United Nations spokeswoman Ariane Quentier said.

Why did the protests in Jalalabad turn violent?

Afghan writer Ismail Yoon told RFE/RL's Afghan Service from Nangarhar that it is possible the violence is being instigated by disaffected political elements who now find themselves on the outside of the country's political process.

In other words, the allegations about the Koran -- though serious in themselves -- were an excuse to cause trouble for President Karzai's government in Kabul.

"It first started in Jalalabad. Jalalabad has a big population, and this issue in a very sensitive religious issue," Yoon said. "Naturally, people get very excited and emotional when it comes to religious issues. It is possible that some people who had a hand in these demonstrations and organized them were aiming to create violence. Also [there is the question of] mistakes by government forces and [the presence of] foreign troops in Jalalabad. Impatience over all of these [factors] led to violence."

Wahid Mojhdeh, a political analyst in Kabul, said tensions already existed in eastern Afghanistan between the local population and U.S.-led coalition forces. He said the allegations over the Koran simply inflamed those forces.

"A few weeks ago in several districts in the east of Afghanistan, coalition forces had entered people's houses without permission," Mojhdeh said. "Such [tensions] existed there, and after the news about the desecration of the Koran in Guantanamo was published by [the press], the [discontent] that existed was transformed into action and led to the violent demonstration. That was one reason [for the trouble], and also the inexperience of police and security forces in eastern Afghanistan should be mentioned."

Karzai said yesterday that the shootings showed the unpreparedness of Afghan security forces to handle civilian demonstrations, which he said are part of democratic life.

In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul expressed full confidence in the abilities of the Afghan security forces.

(Sultan Sarwar of RFE/RL's Afghan Service contributed to this report.)

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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