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'Koran burning' protests continue in Afghanistan
Angry Afghans took to the streets for a fourth day on Friday after at least 15 people died this week in a series of protests following reports that NATO troops had burned copies of the Koran.
AFP - Furious Afghans took to the streets for a fourth day of violent anti-US protests on Friday, as security forces in Kabul fired into the air to stop hundreds marching towards NATO headquarters.
An AFP reporter said at least one demonstrator was shot in the hip as crowds shouted "death to America" over the burning of Korans at the US-run Bagram airbase, following protests that have already killed 15 people since Tuesday.
"We have demos in five locations in Kabul," senior police official Mohammad Zahir told AFP. "We have no violence so far."
The Afghan government had called for calm to prevent Taliban insurgents from capitalising on fury over the incident, while the US embassy warned that protests could turn violent and target Westerners.
In the western city of Herat, a group among more than a 1,000 demonstrators broke off and tried to march towards the US consulate but were prevented by security forces, an AFP reporter said.
Other protests broke out in northern Baghlan and Kunduz provinces, as well in central Bamiyan and Ghazni and eastern Nangarhar, AFP correspondents said.
The Koran incident has fanned the flames of anti-Western sentiment already burning over abuses by coalition forces, such as the release last month of a video showing US Marines urinating on the corpses of dead Afghans.
The demonstrations erupted after the main weekly Muslim prayers with at least one mullah in Kabul denouncing "infidels" for the desecration of Islam's holy book and urging the faithful to take to the streets.
"The Americans have disrespected our holy Koran -- we will take revenge, we will burn them," said Kabul protester Jamshid.
Two US soldiers were among those killed at rallies since Tuesday, forcing President Barack Obama to apologise over the Koran burning.
French, Norwegian and US military bases have come under attack, after insurgents exhorted their countrymen to kill foreign troops in revenge.
German forces in northern Afghanistan withdrew early from a base at Taluqan in Takhar province after about 300 people demonstrated peacefully outside, an army spokesman said Friday.
The US embassy in Kabul has been in lockdown for days, while extra security forces are protecting foreign missions and other strategic places, some armed with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine-guns.
Last April, 10 people were killed and a UN compound in the north was overrun during days of unrest unleashed by the burning of a Koran by American pastor Terry Jones in Florida.
The Afghan government and the US commander of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, General John Allen, called for calm and restraint in a country wracked by 10 years of war against hardline Islamist insurgents.
"Working together with the Afghan leadership is the only way for us to correct this major error and ensure that it never happens again," he said.
Government investigators urged Afghans to "avoid resorting to protests and demonstrations that may provide ground for the enemy to take advantage of the situation".
The US-led NATO coalition has some 130,000 troops in Afghanistan, fighting an insurgency by remnants of the Taliban government overthrown in 2001 for sheltering Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks.
The coalition plans to pull out all combat troops by 2014, but several countries are under pressure at home to call an early end to the unpopular campaign.
The government in neighbouring Pakistan also strongly condemned the Koran desecration, saying it was "absolutely important that such utterly irresponsible and reprehensible things do not recur".
More than 500 people demonstrated in the country's volatile southwest on Thursday, shouting "Down with US, down with Obama, friends of America are traitors", an AFP reporter said.
The circumstances surrounding the Koran incident are still subject to investigation. But US officials told AFP the military removed the books from a prison at Bagram because inmates were suspected of using them to pass messages.