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Afghan president enters fray as anti-US riots escalate following reports of holy book desecration, writes Nick Meo in Kabul|
AFGHAN president Hamid Karzai urged the United States yesterday to prosecute and punish anyone found guilt of desecrating the Koran as anti-US protests flared for a fifth day.
Sixteen Afghans have been killed and more than 100 injured since Wednesday, in the worst anti-U.S. protests across Afghanistan since U.S. forces invaded in 2001 to oust the Taliban.
Karzai added his weight to the growing outrage over reports of American desecration of the Muslim holy book, the Koran.
Speaking at a news conference he said: “If proven that this happened, then we will strongly ask the American government to put on trial and punish whoever is the culprit,” Karzai told a news conference.
Yesterday protesters took to the streets in the southern town of Spin Boldak, on the border with Pakistan, in neighbouring Zabul province, in Farah province in the west and in Badghis in the northwest.
Thousands of Muslims in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the Gaza Strip have demonstrated in the past week at American treatment of the Koran after Newsweek magazine reported that interrogators at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay “had placed Korans on toilets, and in at least one case flushed a holy book down the toilet”.
The Koran is taken as the literal word of God, and in Pakistan and Afghan istan desecration of the holy book is punishable by death.
Yesterday Afghanistan’s chief justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari said: “If the Americans have done this, then they should admit it, punish those who did it and apologise to Muslims.”
His call echoed the demands of those who have been taking to the streets of Afghan towns and cities this week.
On Thursday, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice ordered an investigation, after the Saudi government voiced its “deep indignation” at the allegations. Authorities in Pakistan have also called for a probe.
The demonstrations started quietly enough last week. Student rallies were called in the eastern city of Jalalabad after the Newsweek article was reported on Afghan radio .
But within hours the crowds had swollen into an angry mob, buildings across the city were in flames, hospitals were overflowing with casualties and Westerners were fleeing for their lives .
The rioting continued to spread out with a ripple effect across Afghanistan, with large and angry demonstrations in the capital Kabul and minor gun battles between police and demonstrators in small towns on the Pakistan border, south of Kabul, and then in the far north and west.
It was Jalalabad, the epicentre of the eruption, that suffered the most damage, with foreign aid workers the targets of mobs.
They burned and looted offices, smashed cars, stole or destroyed equipment and beat any Afghan staff they could find. Demonstrators burned US flags, and chanted “death to George Bush” and “long live Mullah Omar”. US troops fired into the air in response, but were mainly confined to barracks.
The cost of damage was reckoned in the millions of dollars. Yesterday the city was still too dangerous for aid workers and UN staff to return to after they evacuated their offices at the height of the violence.
For foreigners caught up in it, the mayhem was terrifying, and not a little heartbreaking. Veteran aid group Care International had its offices destroyed by a 2000-strong mob in a small town 40 miles south of Kabul. The mob was made up of mostly schoolchildren – from a school which had been built by Care a year ago. The damage will seriously set back attempts to help Afghans, still some of world’s poorest people.
But although aid agencies bore the brunt of the violence, it was resentment against America that fuelled Afghanistan’s worst street violence in years, which was at least in part orchestrated.
Security forces questioned ringleaders, and the involvement of professional agitators was darkly alluded to.
The coalition made it clear that this was an Afghan problem to be solved by Afghan security forces, who failed miserably. Police fired repeatedly on the mob, killing four people and injuring more than 70, but lost control of Jalalabad for several hours. The UN offices were nearly stormed.
Resentment against US troops has been growing in the Pushtun areas and any perceived insult against Islam was likely to trigger violence in such a conservative area.
Many terrorist suspects, who fellow tribesmen believe to be innocent, have been shipped to Guantanamo.
The military bases at Kandahar and Bagram, and how long they will remain in the country, is becoming a political issue. Many Afghans are questioning whether they want Americans in their country permanently.
Another issue is the lack of development aid for opium farmers who are resentful at the ban on growing the crop.
But for the first time since the US and the international community arrived in 2001, there has been a popular outpouring of anti-foreign feeling in Afghanistan, and both the US military and foreign civilians may now be facing a summer of troubles.
15 May 2005