KABUL // Protests over the burning of a Quran in the United States engulfed Afghanistan for a third day yesterday, leaving at least two Afghan policemen dead and another 20 people injured in demonstrations in the country's eastern and southern provinces.
The two policemen were killed during demonstrations in Kandahar city, the Taliban's spiritual homeland in southern Afghanistan, just a day after at least 10 people were killed in similar protests there. The circumstances surrounding the two Kandahar policemen's deaths remained unclear late yesterday.
In Jalalabad, in the east, students peacefully blocked the city's main motorway to the capital Kabul in protest.
Since Friday, 23 people, including seven foreigners, have been killed across Afghanistan in protests against the Florida pastor Terry Jones's burning of the Quran on March 20.
The most recent riots were set off by a particularly violent demonstration in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif after prayers on Friday.
Afghans protesting against the Quran burning stormed a United Nations compound and killed seven of the organisation's foreign staff, including four Nepalese guards. Five Afghan protesters also died.
Idris, a 34-year-old patron at a Kabul restaurant, said yesterday: "I didn't know a man in the United States had burnt the Quran until there were demonstrations in Mazar. I still don't know if he actually burnt it, or just said he was going to burn it."
The UN's top envoy in Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, speaking to reporters on Saturday, said the UN employees who died in Friday's attack "were killed when they were running out of the bunker.
"One was pulled out alive because he pretended to be Muslim," Mr de Mistura said, according to the Associated Press.
The US president, Barack Obama, released a statement on Saturday condemning the violence, calling the killing of innocent people "an affront to human decency and dignity".
In Kabul, where protests were expected yesterday but failed to materialise, the streets of the bustling capital were abnormally quiet as international aid agencies and other organisations with foreign staff restricted their movement around the capital.
With about 4.5 million Afghan residents, Kabul is also home to thousands of foreign workers. Despite the rising violence elsewhere in the country, Kabul has managed to remain relatively safe, both for Afghans and foreigners.
"It feels like we're all waiting for chaos to break out here in Kabul," one western aid worker, who wished to remain anonymous, said. But for the city's Afghan inhabitants, yesterday was business as usual.
Policemen joked casually at checkpoints, while men sipped tea in the shade of shop fronts. Women lunched at the park, and farmers sold produce on the dusty streets.
One shop owner, Salqai, 42, said: "We are Muslims, and we have the right to demonstrate to say this [the burning of the Quran] is an insult to our religion. But we want peace and security. This is the capital, this is not Kandahar. We don't want these kinds of problems."
Kabul residents were uniform in their condemnation of the burning of the Quran, calling it "cowardly" and a "crime against humanity" and demanding that the United States arrest and punish Mr Jones.
"Whoever burnt the book, he should be punished," Idris, at the restaurant, said. "And if America won't punish him, give him to the Muslims. Let us decide."
Another local resident, an engineer at an electronics shop, said the protests were not only about the Quran, but were the result of years of humiliation at the hands of foreign armies.
"There are foreigners here, soldiers, and we don't know what their motives are," Ishoq, the engineer, said. "They are bombing villages, killing civilians. What other man would accept this in his own country?"
Despite the anger, local residents largely rejected attacks against foreigners as retaliation.
"When someone burns our holy book, we are ready to sacrifice," said 25-year-old Farid, an Afghan policeman on duty in Kabul. "But if someone attacks innocent foreigners in the name of Islam, I will push him back. We should demonstrate, but we should not kill."