Afghans angry over the burning of a Quran at a small Florida church stormed a U.N. compound in northern Afghanistan on Friday, killing seven foreigners, including four Nepalese guards.
KABUL, Afghanistan — The recent burning of the Muslim holy book by a Florida pastor went largely unnoticed in the U.S. But it enraged a mob that stormed U.N. offices Friday in northern Afghanistan, violence that signaled broadening anti-American sentiment and the difficulty of handing security responsibility back to Afghans.
Worshippers attacked U.N. headquarters in Mazar-i-Sharif after a sermon during Friday prayers that denounced the burning of the Quran on March 20 after a mock trial organized by the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla. The pastor of the small fringe congregation, the Rev. Terry Jones, received worldwide publicity last fall when he said he was going to burn a copy of the book, but later said he changed his mind.
The Afghan mob overpowered and killed guards who tried to fight it off, set parts of the U.N. compound ablaze and hunted down workers trapped inside, according to Afghan police.
The marchers, some of them carrying weapons, shouted “Death to infidels!” as they approached the compound, one of the most visible signs of the Western presence in the northern Afghan city.
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U.N. officials said seven foreigners — four guards and three other U.N. employees — were killed. Afghan officials said the four guards were Nepalese. Officials in Sweden and Norway said one of their citizens was killed, and reports said the seventh foreigner slain was from Romania.
Friday’s violence was the deadliest against United Nations staff in Afghanistan since October 2009, when gunmen and bombers stormed a guesthouse in the capital, Kabul, killing five foreign U.N. workers and two Afghan guards. That prompted the world body to order the relocation of hundreds of expatriate employees.
A year later, in October 2010, the main U.N. compound in the western city of Herat came under attack by a squad of suicide bombers and gunmen, some of them disguised as either police officers or women, but the Nepalese guards managed to repel them, and the four assailants were the only fatalities.
In part because of the relative calm in recent years, Mazar-i-Sharif was designated last month by President Hamid Karzai as among the first major cities in which Afghan forces would take the lead in providing security. That process is a cornerstone of the strategy for U.S. and other Western forces to eventually pull out of Afghanistan.
After taking office, President Obama increased U.S. troop levels twice in an effort to stop a resurgence by the Taliban. U.S. forces now make up about two-thirds of the 150,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan.
U.S. military officials say they will start withdrawing some forces in less than four months.
Obama condemned the attack in Mazar-i-Sharif, the provincial capital of Balkh province, offered condolences for the deaths and injuries, and called for calm.
“The brave men and women of the United Nations, including the Afghan staff, undertake their work in support of the Afghan people,” he said. “Their work is essential to building a stronger Afghanistan for the benefit of all its citizens.”
Jones, the pastor, said in an interview with Agence France-Presse on Friday that he was “devastated” by the killings but added, “We don’t feel responsible for that.”
In an emailed statement, he demanded that the United States and United Nations take “immediate action” against Muslim nations in retaliation for the deaths. “The time has come to hold Islam accountable,” he said.
Church-affiliated websites said the Muslim holy book was accused of “inciting murder, rape and terrorist activities” and subjected to a six-hour mock trial March 20, after which it was soaked in kerosene and burned.
The violence began Friday when a crowd poured out of Mazar-i-Sharif’s landmark Blue Mosque after an incendiary sermon preached at noon prayers, the most important religious occasion of the Muslim week.
Similar sermons set off angry demonstrations in Kabul and Herat, but neither of those boiled over into large-scale violence.
Many in the Kabul crowd were angry, excited young men. One, a 26-year-old student who gave only the name of Samiullah, said the protesters had come to raise their voices against what he called a “wicked act of blasphemy.”
Friday’s demonstrations in Afghanistan also came against the backdrop of growing anti-American sentiment, aggravated by the war-crimes case against five U.S. soldiers, members of the 5th Stryker Brigade, based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma.
The self-styled “kill team” is accused of killing at least three Afghan civilians in Kandahar Province last year.
On Thursday, as gruesome photos of the American soldiers posing with the corpses of victims began circulating in Afghanistan after being published in Rolling Stone magazine, Karzai denounced the killings and the photos and demanded those responsible be punished.
Material from The New York Times and
The Associated Press is included in this report.