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Canadians protected amid Qur'an protests: Cannon

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon has given assurances that Canadian civilians working in Afghanistan are well protected amid a wave of protests, touched off by the burning of Islam's holy book at a Florida church.

Protests claim more lives, but Florida church that provoked outrage says it has no regrets

Afghan protesters in Kandahar walk with sticks as they carry a wounded colleague during a demonstration Saturday to condemn the burning of a copy of Islam's holy book in the U.S. (Allauddin Khan/Associated Press)

Latest

  • Kandahar governor condemns both the book burning and the protests
  • Shops, restaurants shutter windows
  • Protesters rough up journalists

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon gave assurances Saturday that Canadian civilians working in Afghanistan are well protected amid a wave of protests, touched off by the burning of Islam's holy book at a Florida church.

At least nine people were killed and dozens more injured on Saturday when protests took a violent turn in Kandahar city, the office of the Kandahar government said.

On Friday, Afghans protesting the Qur'an burning stormed a United Nations compound in northern Afghanistan, killing seven foreigners and four Afghan civilians.

"This is a terrible set of circumstances," Cannon told reporters in Ottawa.

"We of course are very concerned with the way this is taking place, but I can assure Canadians that from a security perspective, our Canadian Forces as well as all the civilian personnel are provided security, so that goes for the ambassador to every Canadian working there, and we are following this very closely," he said.

U.S. President Barack Obama condemned the two attacks and called the violence "outrageous and an affront to human decency and dignity." He extended his condolences to those killed and also said the desecration of the Qur'an was "an act of extreme intolerance and bigotry."

UN envoy recounts attack

Fearing for their lives, workers at a UN compound in Mazar-i-Sharif dashed into a dark bunker hoping to escape the mob of Afghan protesters.

Three of them were hunted down and slain — their bodies found later in three different parts of the compound in northern Afghanistan.

"They were killed when they were running out of the bunker," said Staffan de Mistura, the top UN envoy in Afghanistan, who recounted their harrowing deaths to reporters on Saturday evening. "One was pulled out alive because he pretended to be a Muslim."

De Mistura spoke in a somber tone as he described how three UN staff members and four Nepalese guards were killed Friday. He placed direct blame on the Americans who burned a copy of the Muslim holy book in Florida.

A formal inquiry is underway, but de Mistura said initial reports indicate seven to 15 insurgents infiltrated a group of as many as 3,000 demonstrators who overran the UN compound, which was protected by Afghan policemen and six UN-hired Nepalese guards.

The crowd overpowered the guards, who are instructed not to shoot into crowds of civilians, even if they are threatening — and the police were not able to stop them, he said.

Four of the Nepalese guards were killed; some shot in the yard of the compound. Three Afghan UN workers survived by melding into the surging crowd, he said.

When the killers forced themselves inside they saw Pavel Ershov, the mission chief who is fluent in Dari, one of two languages spoken in Afghanistan. They beat him, but stopped after he convinced them, in Dari, that he was a Muslim, de Mistura said.

"He spoke the language and tried to draw their attention on himself," the envoy said. "For a moment, he hoped that they would think there was nobody else there."

But using a light, the attackers found the three other foreigners, then pulled them out and killed them one after the other. Two died of bullet wounds. The third's throat was slashed.

They were identified by officials in their home countries as:

  • Joakim Dungel, 33, a Swede who worked on human rights.
  • Lt. Col. Siri Skare, 53, a female pilot from Norway who was an adviser
  • Filaret Motco, 43, a Romanian who worked in the political section of the UN.

— AP

A statement from the office of Kandahar Gov. Tooryalai Wesa said about 100 people started protesting Saturday to show their anger over the burning of the Qur'an by members of a small Christian fundamentalist church in Florida. Wesa's office said at least 81 people were injured in the protests.

His office condemned the act of burning the holy book as "abhorrent" and "stupid," but it also denounced the violence. 

"Some wicked and destructive people placed themselves amongst the protesters," the statement said.

Security forces shot in the air after a crowd began trying to burn vehicles and damage shops in the city of Kandahar on Saturday morning, said Zalmai Ayubi, a spokesman for the governor.

An Afghan police officer walks by a burned vehicle at the compound of the UN office in Mazar-i-Sharaf, north of Kabul, after a protest against the burning of a copy of Islam's holy book turned violent. ((Mustafa Najafizada/Associated Press))
Shops and restaurants throughout the city were shuttered and routes leading into the city were blocked by security forces.

An Associated Press photographer estimated the crowd at a few thousand and said demonstrators had smashed his camera and roughed up other journalists.

The desecration of the Qur'an 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.

In other violence Saturday, two suicide attackers disguised as women blew themselves up and a third was gunned down when they tried to enter a NATO base on the outskirts of Kabul, NATO and Afghan police said.

The Qur'an was burned 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 where the attacks on the UN compound occurred.

Florida church has no regrets

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 protest in Mazar-i-Sharif was the most violent to date.

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 kilometres southeast of the city, said Rawof Taj, deputy provincial police chief.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid sent a text message to The Associated Press on Saturday denying that the insurgency was responsible for killing the UN workers.

Four protesters were also killed in the riot in Mazar-i-Sharif. Demonstrators have alleged that they were killed by Afghan security forces.

With files from The Associated Press