April 1, 2011
At least eight foreign UN workers and four others have been killed in an attack on a UN compound in the Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, officials say.
The violence happened during a protest over the burning of the Koran in a US church last month.Witnesses said hundreds of people were protesting peacefully in the city when the scene suddenly turned violent.
A local police spokesman told the BBC the city was now under control and a number of people had been arrested.
The UN has confirmed its workers were killed but has not said how many – it said the situation remained “confusing”.
“We are currently working to ascertain all the facts and take care of all our staff,” said spokesman Dan McNorton.
UN officials quoted by Reuters warned that the death toll could rise and added that those killed included foreign and local staff, UN guards and Nepalese Gurkha soldiers hired to protect the compound.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described it as “an outrageous and cowardly attack”.
Mazar-e Sharif is one of Afghanistan’s largest cities – as well as one of its safest. Just last week, thousands peacefully celebrated the Persian new year.
The city is on a list of areas to be handed to full Afghan security control later this year. The attack on the UN compound raises serious questions about that plan.
A state of emergency has now been declared in the city, Afghan intelligence sources told the BBC. All roads in and out of Mazar have been blocked and cars are being checked. Special army and police units have been deployed to prevent further unrest.
The authorities are well aware of the dangers of protests spreading. In 2006, anger at cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper swept across Afghanistan. Dozens were killed or injured.
US President Barack Obama also condemned the attack “in the strongest possible terms”, saying the work of the UN “is essential to building a stronger Afghanistan”.
The top UN representative in Afghanistan, Staffan De Mistura, is travelling to the area to handle the matter.
Witnesses said a crowd of several hundred staged a protest outside the Blue Mosque in the city after Friday prayers.
The crowds moved to outside the UN compound, where a small group broke away.
Munir Ahmad Farhad, a spokesman for Balkh province, said the group seized weapons from the guards and opened fire before storming the building.
Local police spokesman Lala M Ahmadzai told the BBC the attackers had used guns and knives.
He said that the situation was under control and a number of suspected attackers had been arrested.
Officials have declared an emergency in the city – major roads in and out have been blocked.
Kieran Dwyer, director of communications for the UN mission in Afghanistan, said the UN 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 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 UN was targeted, but that the organisation would now take extra security measures.
But he added: “The UN 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.”
On 20 March, Pastor Wayne Sapp set light to a copy of the Koran at a church in Florida.
The burning took place under the supervision of Terry Jones, another US pastor who last year drew condemnation over his aborted plan to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Protests were held in several other Afghan cities on Friday – which demonstrators in Herat had called a “day of anger”, Afghanistan’s Noor TV channel reports.
The BBC’s Paul Wood in Kabul says Mazar-e Sharif is known to be a relatively peaceful part of the country, but that the Florida incident will raise questions of whether the city will be able to make the transition from foreign to Afghan security control later this year.
Our correspondent says that in a deeply religiously conservative country such as Afghanistan, that act has the power to inflame passions in otherwise peaceful areas.
Mr. Jones told the BBC he was not responsible for the actions of the protesters.