Afghan Protest Against the U.S. Becomes Violent

By CARLOTTA GALL

New York Times

May 12,2005

KABUL, Afghanistan, May 11 - Four protesters were killed and more than 60 injured Wednesday in the eastern city of Jalalabad as the police and troops struggled to contain the worst anti-American demonstrations in Afghanistan in the more than three years since the fall of the Taliban.

Government officials said the violence appeared to have been planned and that religious hard-liners and armed men had usurped what had started as a student protest.

At least a dozen buildings were ransacked and burned, including the governor's office, several other government buildings, the United Nations mission compound and a number of offices belonging to aid groups.

Afghan policemen and troops, together with some American forces, eventually quelled the riots, but not before opening fire on protesters, who numbered in the thousands, residents said. Foreigners were evacuated from the city as their offices came under attack, and the air filled with smoke and gunfire, but no injuries to foreigners were reported.

The demonstrations were started on Tuesday by students angered by a report in Newsweek that American interrogators at the Guantánamo Bay detention center had desecrated the Koran by flushing a copy down the toilet.

It was unclear how the protesters got word of the report, but many Afghans receive their news from radio programs broadcast in local languages by Voice of America, the BBC and Radio Liberty, which often broadcast foreign news reports.

They carried banners condemning the reported sacrilege, chanted anti-American slogans and burned President Bush in effigy. The protest proceeded peacefully on Tuesday, but on Wednesday it suddenly turned violent, with hundreds of stone-throwing and stick-wielding demonstrators spreading across town. Soon they were breaking into compounds, smashing cars and setting buildings on fire.

By midafternoon four people had been killed and 63 wounded, many from gunshots and others from stones, knives and sticks, the director of public health in Jalalabad, Fazel Muhammad Ibrahimi, said in a telephone interview. Seventeen people were detained by the police, Kabul Television reported.

The governor's office was set on fire, as was the Central Statistics Office, destroying the census records, said a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Lutfullah Mashal. The Pakistani Consulate, the city library and the regional television and radio station were also attacked, he said.

The main United Nations office and two guesthouses were attacked and staff members evacuated, a United Nations spokeswoman said. Aid organizations including the Red Cross; Acbar, an umbrella group of aid organizations; and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission were attacked, as well as offices of the Women's Affairs Ministry, residents said.

Demonstrations were reported in several other towns in eastern and southern Afghanistan, but they seem to have been peaceful. High school students in Wardak Province blocked the main road south from Kabul for an hour but were persuaded to disperse peacefully, said the local police chief, Basir Salangi.

In Jalalabad, "the students were peaceful and were shouting," Mr. Mashal said. "But there were some specific hard-line religious groups involved. From their activities it looks like it was preplanned."

He said there were some indications that the violence had been influenced by religious or extreme elements across the border in Pakistan, whether supporters of the Taliban, who were removed from power in late 2001 in an American-led military campaign, or Pakistani groups.

President Hamid Karzai, on a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels, said that while protests were a sign of newfound democracy, the violence indicated how much Afghanistan still needed foreign assistance. "Afghanistan's institutions, the police, the army, are not ready to handle" such protests, he said, adding that guards at the governor's office had stood by while the offices had been destroyed.

Sharifa Shahab, an officer of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, was leading an election seminar for women in Jalalabad when the demonstration began. She and 20 others were taken to the basement of the United Nations mission for protection, she said.

"This was not a demonstration," she said. "It was completely organized violence. It started with students from the medical college, and then armed men seized the occasion and abused it."

Yet she conceded that the reports of Americans desecrating the Koran, on top of stories of abuse of detainees, had inflamed public sentiment. "There was a lot of anger among the people, even among ordinary people," she said. "As a Muslim woman, if they really did this I condemn it, because everyone should respect the faith, religion and ideology of others."