Arrests made in UN Afghan office killings

An Afghan official says police have arrested 20 people including the suspected mastermind behind the attack on a UN mission compound in northern Afghanistan that killed at least 12 people, including seven of the world body's foreign staff.

UN staff from Norway, Nepal and Sweden reported killed in Qur'an burning protest

Afghans carry a man who was wounded in an attack on the UN's office in Mazar-i-Sharif, north of Kabul. (Mustafa Najafizada/Associated Press)

An Afghan official says police have arrested 20 people including the suspected mastermind behind the attack on a UN mission compound in northern Afghanistan that killed at least 12 people, including seven of the world body's foreign staff.

Deputy police chief in Balkh province, Rawof Taj, said the suspected ringleader was from Kapisa province, a hotbed of the insurgency about 400 kilometres southeast of Mazar-i-Sharif, where the attack occurred. No further details of the arrest were immediately available.

The victims died after Afghans protesting the burning of Islam's holy book at a U.S. church stormed the compound in Mazar-i-Sharif.

The protest in Mazar-i-Sharif began peacefully when several hundred demonstrators gathered outside the UN office after Friday prayers to denounce the Qur'an's destruction, said Munir Ahmad Farhad, a spokesman for the governor in Balkh.

It turned violent when some protesters grabbed weapons from the UN guards, opened fire on the police, stormed the building and set fires inside, he said.

Black smoke could be seen billowing from the building.

Lal Mohammad Ahmadzai, a police spokesman for the northern region, was quoted by Reuters as saying two of the dead were beheaded by attackers during the three-hour rampage.

The topic of Qur'an burning stirred outrage among some Muslims after a small church in Florida threatened to destroy the holy book last year. The Florida pastor had backed down then but apparently his church went through with the burning last Sunday under his supervision, prompting protests in three Afghan cities.

"I've seen the video. They essentially put the Qur'an on trial, find it guilty of murder and say that there are four possible punishments," CBC's David Common said. "They chose to burn it and carried out that 'punishment' right there in their parish."

A police source said the chief of the mission in Mazar-i-Sharif was wounded but survived, and that the dead included employees of Norwegian, Romanian and Swedish nationalities.

The Norwegian Defence Ministry said one of the victims was Lt.-Col. Siri Skare, a 53-year-old female pilot. A Swede and four UN guards from Nepal were also killed. A western official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the seventh victim was a citizen of Romania.

There were five protesters who also died, the UN later said. The figure changed throughout the day.

Canada's Foreign Affairs department issued a statement Friday afternoon condemning the attack and disclosing that no Canadians were identified among the civilians killed or injured.

Dan McNorton, a spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, confirmed that people working for the UN had died in an attack on the operation centre, but he could not provide details.

"The situation is still confusing and we are currently working to ascertain all the facts and take care of all our staff," he said from his office in Kabul.

Staffan de Mistura, the top UN official in Afghanistan, had left Kabul for Mazar-i-Sharif to personally handle the situation, he said.

The UN Security Council, which held an emergency meeting on Friday, later emerged with a statement.

"The members of the Security Council condemned in the strongest terms the violent attack against the United Nations operations centre," Colombia's UN ambassador, Nestor Osorio, president of the council this month, told reporters.

He added that the council "called on the government of Afghanistan to bring those responsible to justice."

Clerics issue call to protest

Mohammad Azim, a businessman in Mazer-i-Sharif, said that clerics with loudspeakers drove around the city in two cars on Thursday to invite residents to the protest. After Friday prayers at a large blue mosque in the city centre, clerics again called on worshippers to attend a peaceful protest.

Several hundred people also protested the reported Qur'an burning at several sites in Herat, a city in western Afghanistan. Protesters burned a U.S. flag at a sports stadium in Herat and chanted "Death to the U.S." and "They broke the heart of Islam."

About 100 people also gathered at a traffic circle near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Police directed traffic around the demonstration in the capital. One protester carried a sign that said: "We want these bloody bastard Americans with all their forces to leave Afghanistan."

The protesters were condemning the reported March 20 burning of the Qur'an at Rev. Terry Jones' church, Dove Outreach Center, in Gainesville, Fla. The church on Friday confirmed that the Qur'an was burned.

In a statement, Jones did not comment on whether the church's act had led to the UN deaths. Instead he said it was time to "hold Islam accountable" and called on the U.S. and the UN to 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."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued a statement calling the burning a "crime against a religion." He denounced it as a "disrespectful and abhorrent act" and called on the U.S. and the United Nations to bring to justice those who burned the holy book and issue a response to Muslims around the world.

When the plan was first made public, U.S. President Barack Obama intervened and urged that Jones and his congregation not to go through with it.

Obama responded to the killings of UN employees in Afghanistan with another statement Friday.

"I condemn in the strongest possible terms the attack on the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan today," he said. "Their work is essential to building a stronger Afghanistan for the benefit of all its citizens. We stress the importance of calm and urge all parties to reject violence."

Canada, which has a combat mission in Afghanistan, also condemned the attack on UN staff and Afghan civilians.

"This senseless act of violence was carried out by opponents of peace and progress in Afghanistan," the Department of Foreign Affairs said in the statement. "Those responsible for this cowardly attack must be held accountable."

With files from The Associated Press