At least 12 people were killed Friday in an attack on a United Nations building in Afghanistan that followed a demonstration against the reported burning of a Quran in Florida last month, authorities and a U.N. source with knowledge of the events said.
Eight workers for the U.N. and four Afghans were killed, said Abdul Rauof Taj, security director of Bulkh province. At least 24 people were injured, he said. A U.N. source confirmed the dead included four Nepalese security guards. U.N. workers from Norway, Sweden and Romania were also among the dead, the source said.
The attack followed a demonstration against the reported burning of a Quran this month by Florida pastor Terry Jones, who gained international attention last year with his plans to burn a Quran, the U.N. source with knowledge of events said. Jones is the pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainseville, Florida. He cancelled plans to burn a Quran last year, on the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Last month, however, with far less attention than he attracted last year, Jones reportedly burned Islam’s holy book.
The church says on its website that it planned to put the Quran on trial on March 20, and, “if found guilty of causing murder, rape and terrorism, it will be executed!” Another post on the website says “the Koran was found guilty” during the mock trial and “a copy was burned inside the building.” (CNN)
Jones said the attacks show that “time has come to hold Islam accountable. We must hold these countries and people accountable for what they have done as well as for any excuses they may use to promote their terrorist activities,” he said. (CNN)
“I’ve seen the video,” CBC’s David Common said. “They essentially put the Quran on trial, find it guilty of murder and say that there are four possible punishments. They chose to burn it and carried out that ‘punishment’ right there in their perish.” (CBC)
The attack on Friday happened at the operations center of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan in Mazar-e Sharif, said Dan McNorton, a U.N. spokesman. “The situation is still confusing and we are currently working to ascertain all the facts and take care of all our staff,” he said. (CNN)
The crowd protested the burning of the Quran, some carrying signs that read “Down with America” and “Death to Obama”. (New York Times) The protest had begun peacefully when several hundred demonstrators gathered outside the U.N. office after Friday prayers to denounce the Quran’s destruction, said Munir Ahmad Farhad, a spokesman for the governor in Balkh province. It turned violent when some protesters grabbed weapons from the U.N. guards, opened fire on the police, stormed the building and set fires inside, he said. Black smoke could be seen billowing from the building.
Initial indications are that knives and small arms were used in the attack, according to a U.N. spokesman who declined to be named.
Kieran Dwyer, director of communications for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, said the U.N. workers had been trapped inside the compound and “hunted down” in what was an “overwhelming situation… These are civilian people, unarmed, here to do human rights work, to work for the peace in Afghanistan – they were not prepared for this situation,” he told the BBC. Mr. Dwyer said it was too early to tell how the attack happened or why the U.N. was targeted, but that the organization would now take extra security measures. But he added: “The U.N. is here to stay. We’re here to work with the people to help them achieve peace, and this sort of thing just highlights how important that is.” (BBC)
General Abdul Raouf Taj, the deputy police commander for Balkh Province, where Mazar is located, said, “Police tried to stop them, but protesters began stoning the building and finally the situation got out of control.” (New York Times)
The governor of Balkh Province, Atta Mohammad Noor, blamed what he said were Taliban infiltrators among the crowd who urged violence and even distributed weapons; he said 27 suspects were arrested on charges of inciting violence, some from Kandahar and other provinces where Taliban are more common. “The insurgents have taken advantage of the situation to attack the U.N. compound, said Governor Noor. (Reuters)
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai called the attacks “an act against Islam and Afghan values,” while the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said the deadly attack “was a cowardly attack that cannot be justified.” (CNN)
NATO Secretary General Andres Fogh Rasmussen said the victims were only trying to help the Afghan people. “In targeting them, the attackers have demonstrated an appalling disregard for what the U.N. and the entire international community are trying to do for the benefit of all Afghans,” he said. (CNN)
U.S. President Barack Obama also condemned the attack. “We stress the importance of calm and urge all parties to reject violence and resolve differences through dialogue,” he said. (CNN) President Obama also said that the work of the U.N. “is essential to building a stronger Afghanistan.” (BBC)
The United Nations’ special representative to Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, was on his way to Mazar-e Sharif to assess the situation, McNorton said.
If the death toll is correct, it would make it the deadliest attack on the United Nations in Afghanistan, and one of the worst on the organization for years. The worst previous attack was an insurgent assault on a guesthouse where U.N. staff were staying in October 2009. Five employees were killed and nine others wounded. The two largest attacks on U.N. compounds in other countries are a 2007 bomb in Algiers that killed 17 U.N. staff, and a 2003 attack on the Baghdad hotel that was the U.N. headquarters there, which killed at least 22 people.
The violence came on a particularly sad day for the United Nations. A Swedish official, Zahra Abidi, serving in the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast, was killed Thursday by a stray bullet during a shoot out in the commercial capital of Abijdan, the U.N. announced. Another U.N. official in Haiti also died of a heart attack.
In other Afghan developments, six American soldiers have been killed in a single operation in eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday and Thursday, a spokesman for the international coalition said Friday. “I can confirm that six coalition soldiers have been identified as U.S. soldiers, and were all killed as part of the same operation, but in three separate incidents,” said Maj. Tim James. (New York Times) The operation, a helicopter borne assault into a remote part of Kunar Province close to the Pakistani border, was ongoing. The area is frequently used to infiltrate fighters from Pakistan. The purpose of the operation, Maj. James said, was to “disrupt insurgent operations.” (New York Times)
The governor of Kunar Province, Said Fazlullah Wahidi, said the operation began Wednesday as a joint Afghan and American air and ground operation in the districts of Sarkani and Marawara, close to the border of Pakistan. He said that 14 insurgents were killed and 10 wounded, but had no information about Afghan government casualties.