Kabul // Violent protests over the burning of a Quran in the US state of Florida continued for a second day in Afghanistan yesterday, underscoring the tensions that surround the international presence here and raising doubts about a planned handover of security to Afghan forces this year.
At least nine Afghans were killed yesterday in the southern city of Kandahar during violent protests against the Quran burning, just one day after a mob killed seven foreigners when they stormed a UN compound in the normally quiet northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
The topic of Quran burning stirred outrage among millions of Muslims and others worldwide after Rev Terry Jones's small church, Dove Outreach Center, threatened to destroy a copy of the holy book last year.
The pastor backed down but the church in Gainesville, Florida, went through with the burning on March 20. Many Afghans found out about it only when Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the desecration four days later.
In Florida, Wayne Sapp, another pastor at the church, called the events "tragic", but said he did not regret the actions of his church. "I in no way feel like our church is responsible for what happened," Mr Sapp said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press on Friday.
While Kandahar, which saw cars and shops set ablaze in yesterday's riots, is already a violent stronghold of the Taliban's insurgency, Mazar-i-Sharif, the site of Friday's attack, is a relatively peaceful city on the list of seven areas to be handed over to Afghan forces by the US-led coalition in July.
On Friday, thousands of demonstrators stormed the UN compound in Mazar-i-Sharif after prayers, overpowering and killing four Nepalese guards, setting fire to watchtowers, and murdering three foreign UN employees inside.
Afghan police said two of the three UN staff killed, including Norwegian, Swedish and Romanian nationals, were beheaded. Four Afghan protesters also died.
The governor of Balkh province, where Friday's attack took place, said Taliban insurgents had used the march, which began at Mazar-i-Sharif's famed blue mosque, as cover to attack the compound. Other reports said the Muslim protesters, already whipped into a frenzy over reports of the American's desecration of their holy book, turned violent after Afghan security forces fired into the crowd.
Police in Balkh said they have rounded up more than 20 people in connection with the attack, including a known Taliban insurgent from Kapisa province, approximately 400km from the city.
Aid workers in Afghanistan are more troubled by the incident in the north, which, having taken place in one of the country's safer cities, revealed a latent hostility held by ordinary Afghans towards the foreign presence here, they say.
Mazar-i-Sharif, with a population of nearly 400,000, is an ethnically mixed and, by some accounts, cosmopolitan city with a long history of resistance to the Taliban and a low level of insurgent activity.
In a 2010 assessment of districts in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), the umbrella under which Nato troops operate, describes the residents of the city as "generally supportive of the government and security forces".
The UN mission in Afghanistan, while established with a mandate to assist the post-Taliban Afghan government, is not officially affiliated with international forces here.
"I think they [locals] know that if they attack Nato, they will be killed," said a Kabul-based independent policy analyst, Stephen Carter. "But the UN is made up of foreigners and the perception here is that foreigners are to blame for everything. But the UN has also proven to be peaceful, so they know they won't fight back."
The UN has been the target of several co-ordinated insurgent attacks in Afghanistan in recent years, including one against a UN guesthouse in central Kabul that left eight of the organisation's staff, including five foreigners, dead.
The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, who is in Nairobi, said on Friday that it was "an outrageous and cowardly attack against UN staff, which cannot be justified under any circumstances and I condemn in the strongest possible terms".
Foreign troop levels are now at their highest since the US-led invasion in 2001, as Nato tries to quell a raging anti-government insurgency. Civilian casualties at the hands of Nato forces have already sparked outrage in several Afghan cities this year. The US has poured more than US$50 billion (Dh183bn) in aid into Afghanistan since 2002, according to the research arm of the US Congress, but most Afghans continue to live in dire poverty, the UN says. Last week, Rolling Stone magazine published a series of photos of US soldiers posing with dead Afghan civilians whom they had allegedly killed for sport in the southern province of Kandahar.
In a separate incident, two suicide attackers disguised as women blew themselves up and a third was gunned down when they attacked a Nato base on the outskirts of Kabul yesterday.
"This is not the beginning of the end for the international community in Afghanistan. This is the end," Una Moore, a Kabul-based development worker, wrote yesterday on UNdispatch.com, a site providing commentary and coverage on the UN and UN-related issues.
"The killers were ordinary residents of a city deemed peaceful enough to be one of the first places transferred to the control of Afghan security forces," Ms Moore continued. "Unless we, the internationals, want our guards to fire on unarmed protesters from now on, the day has come for us to leave Afghanistan."