Afghans riot over the Koran

Posted in Broader Middle East | 12-May-05 | Author: Carlotta Gall| Source: International Herald Tribune

At least a dozen buildings in Jalalabad were ransacked and burned during the anti-United States protest.
KABUL In rioting over charges that the Koran had been desecrated by U.S. forces, 4 Afghan protesters were killed and more than 60 injured Wednesday in the eastern city of Jalalabad.

In the worst anti-American demonstrations Afghanistan has seen in the three years since the fall of the Taliban, at least a dozen buildings were ransacked and burned. They included the governor's office, several government buildings, the UN mission compound and a number of offices belonging to aid groups.

Afghan Army troops and the police, together with U.S. forces, eventually quelled the riots after running clashes with protesters. Foreign nationals were evacuated from the city as their offices came under attack and the air became filled with smoke and gunfire. Government officials said that the violence appeared planned and that religious hard-liners and armed men had usurped what started as a student protest.

It was the second day of demonstrations by students in Jalalabad who were angered at a report in Newsweek magazine that U.S. interrogators at the Guantánamo Bay detention center in Cuba desecrated the Koran by placing it on toilets and, in one case, flushing a copy down the toilet.

The students carried banners condemning the action, chanted anti-American slogans and burned effigies of President George W. Bush. The protest passed peacefully Tuesday, but turned violent Wednesday, with hundreds of stone-throwing and stick-wielding demonstrators spreading across the city. Soon they were breaking into compounds, smashing cars and setting alight offices of the government and of foreign organizations.

The governor's office was set on fire as were the quarters of the Central Statistics Office, destroying all the census records, said a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Lutfullah Mashal.

"The students were peaceful and were shouting," Mashal said. "But there were some specific, hard-line religious groups involved."

He added that the Pakistani Consulate, the city library and the regional television and radio station were also attacked.

The United Nations' main office and two guesthouses were also targets and staff members were evacuated, a UN spokeswoman said.

Aid organizations, including the Red Cross, Acbar, an umbrella group of non-governmental organizations, a French medical agency, Aide Medicale Internationale, and offices of the Women's Affairs Ministry and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission were attacked, residents said.

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

President Hamid Karzai, on a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels said while protests were a sign of newfound democracy, the violence and destruction were an indication of how much Afghanistan still needed foreign assistance. "Afghanistan's institutions, the police, the army, are not ready to handle protest and demos," he said.

Pentagon to investigate

At the Pentagon, a spokesman, Bryan Whitman, said Wednesday that the allegation that the Koran had been desecrated would be investigated, The Associated Press reported.

"This is a serious allegation and it's going to be looked into," Whitman said.

The United States is holding about 520 people at Guantánamo Bay, many of them Qaeda and Taliban suspects captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States.

Whitman defended the treatment of detainees Wednesday.

"We have given great consideration to the detainees that we're holding and their religious practices," he said. "We've given them culturally appropriate meals, we give them opportunities to worship, we give them appropriate religious materials like the Koran."

The U.S. Southern Command, which oversees the Guantánamo operation, recently concluded an investigation into possible abuses at the prison that surfaced in e-mail from FBI officials assigned to the military base located in southeastern Cuba.

Another Pentagon spokesman, Lawrence DiRita, said Tuesday that the Southern Command's investigation was under review by the Justice Department since it involved FBI officials and a separate inquiry by the U.S. investigators.