Five Afghans die as Quran burning protests escalate

Two suicide attackers in the capital, Kabul, blew themselves up in a wave of violence following a Florida church's burning of the Quran.

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KABUL // At least five Afghan civilians died and scores of others were wounded Saturday in southern Afghanistan during a protest against a Florida church's burning of the Muslim holy book, the latest in a wave of new violence sweeping the nation.

In the capital, two suicide attackers disguised as women blew themselves up and a third was gunned down Saturday morning when they tried to enter a NATO base on the outskirts of Kabul, NATO and Afghan police said. That attack came a day after Afghans protesting the Quran burning stormed a UN compound in northern Afghanistan, leaving seven foreigners dead.

The desecration of the Quran has outraged millions of Muslims and others worldwide. The Rev Terry Jones' small church, Dove Outreach Center, threatened to destroy a copy of the holy book last year. The pastor backed down but the church went through with the burning last month.

Wayne Sapp, a pastor at the church called the events "tragic," but said he did not regret the actions of his church.

"I in no way feel like our church is responsible for what happened," Sapp said in a telephone interview on Friday.

The burning occurred on March 20, but many Afghans only found out about it when Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the desecration four days later. Protests broke out on Friday in Kabul, Herat in western Afghanistan and thousands flooded the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif, the provincial capital of Balkh province in the north.

On Saturday several hundred protesters demonstrated the Quran burning in Kandahar city, said Zalmai Ayubi, spokesman for the provincial governor of Kandahar. The demonstration turned violent when some protesters tried to burn vehicles and damage shops, he said.

Eyewitnesses said security forces shot bullets in the air to disperse the crowd. A photographer for The Associated Press covering the protest estimated the crowd at a few thousand and said demonstrators smashed his camera and roughed up other journalists.

The protest in Mazar-i-Sharif was the most violent to date. Four foreign guards and three other foreigners employed at the U.N. office that was attacked were killed. Some of them suffered severe fatal wounds.

Afghan authorities suspect insurgents melded into the mob and they announced the arrest of more than 20 people, including a militant they suspect was the ringleader of the assault. The suspect was an insurgent from Kapisa province, a hotbed of militancy about 400 kilometers southeast of the city, said Rawof Taj, deputy provincial police chief.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid sent a text message to the AP on Saturday denying that the insurgency was responsible for killing the U.N. workers.

Four protesters also died in the protest in Mazar-i-Sharif. Demonstrators have alleged that they were killed by Afghan security forces. Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said Saturday that a delegation of high-ranking Afghan officials was being sent to the city to investigate the what happened during the demonstration in which seven vehicles, including a police vehicle, were burned.

"When the demonstration started, the number of people increased every minute to around 5,000," Bashary said. "The police did take action, but we are investigating how these casualties occurred. Were the steps and actions by police adequate or not?"

Bashary also gave reporters details of the morning attack on Camp Phoenix, a base on the east side of Kabul that's used to train Afghan security forces.

He said three armed insurgents wearing suicide vests arrived at a main gate at the base around 6:45 a.m. Two of the attackers opened fire and then detonated their vests of explosives, Bashary said. The third opened fire and was killed by NATO forces. The body of a fourth person, an Afghan man at the scene, has not been identified. Three NATO service members were injured.

The gate at the base was scorched from the explosions. An AP reporter at the scene saw the remains of at least one of the attackers dangling from the gate. Police officer Mohammad Shakir told the AP that two suicide bombers were clad in blue burqas, the all-encompassing coverings worn by many women in Afghanistan.