Afghan troops were deployed on the streets of an eastern city after four people died and scores were injured in riots sparked by reports that US soldiers had desecrated the Koran at Guantanamo Bay.
Police in Jalalabad opened fire Wednesday to break up an enraged mob of several thousand people that torched the governor’s house, the Pakistani consulate and several foreign aid agencies, police and witnesses told AFP.
As black smoke rose over the city, the crowd went on the rampage, chanting slogans including “Death to America” as well as burning the Stars and Stripes and effigies of US President George W. Bush, witnesses said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the riots showed the “inability” of the war-shattered country’s institutions to deal with such situations, but added that the demonstrations at least meant that democracy was flourishing.
“Afghanistan’s institutions, the police, the army, are not ready to handle protest and demos,” Karzai said at NATO headquarters during an official visit to Brussels.
The US State Department said late Tuesday the Pentagon was investigating a report in Newsweek magazine that interrogators in Guantanamo, Cuba, kept copies of the Koran in toilets to annoy prisoners.
The unrest in Jalalabad began as a peaceful protest by medical university students but numbers swelled to between 5,000 and 10,000 and the demonstration descended into violence, witnesses and a local police source told AFP.
The US military, which leads a coalition of around 18,000 troops hunting Taliban militants three years after it helped topple the Islamic regime, said it was not involved.
“At the request of the Afghan government, the Afghan national army is there, but coalition forces are not with them,” spokeswoman Lieutenant Cindy Moore told AFP.
“We support the right of people to voice their opinions, but violence takes away the people’s right of expression.”
A source with the NATO-led international peacekeeping contingent in Afghanistan said the demonstration was “growing” and that 200 soldiers from the fledgling Afghan national army as well as police were sent to Jalalabad.
“Police opened fire in the air to control the mob, and some people were injured. We do not know how many,” Jalalabad city police chief Abdul Rehman said.
“Initially the demonstrators were peaceful but then a group joined them and the mob turned violent,” he added.
“They set fire to the governor’s office, they set fire to a number of police posts, they set fire to some NGOs, damaged a part of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan office, they also set fire to the Pakistani consulate. But things are under control.”
Two people were “martyred” at the scene and two others apparently died in hospital, hospital’s chief director Fazel Mohammad Ibrahimi told AFP after a survey of the city’s three hospitals.
Another 53 injured people, four of them in a critical condition, were in hospital while many others were treated for light injuries at both, he said.
Protests also spread to the southeastern city of Khost, where about 1,600 university students took to the streets, but the demonstrations there ended peacefully, witnesses said.
Ariane Quentier, a Kabul-based spokeswoman for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, said the mob tried but failed to set fire to its building in Jalalabad.
The Pakistani embassy in Kabul said the mob set fire to the Jalalabad consulate building and two cars parked in the premises.
“Around a dozen members of the mission had left the building before the attack and they all are safe. The building is burned,” an embassy staffer told AFP.
Reports about the abuse of Islam’s holy book have also angered close US ally Pakistan, a mostly Muslim country, which has demanded an explanation.
More than 500 detainees, most captured in Afghanistan or Pakistan following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, are currently held as “enemy combatants” at the US naval base and detention center in Guantanamo.