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U.N. Staff Killed in Afghanistan Quran Protests

Afghan officials say at least 11 people have been killed at a United Nations operational centre in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif when protests over the burning of the Quran by an American preacher turned violent.

The attack appears to be the deadliest against the U.N. in the country since the 2001 invasion.

Demonstrators stormed the U.N. office on Friday, opening fire on guards and lighting fires inside the compound after gathering to protest over reports that an evangelical pastor burned a copy of the Muslim holy book in Florida earlier this month.

In a statement, the U.N. said three civilian workers and four security personnel were killed - none of whom were from Afghanistan. But a U.N. official told the Associated Press news agency that seven workers and four Afghan protesters have been killed. An estimated 20 other demonstrators were injured.

The mission at Mazar-i-Sharif is now being evacuated.

Afghan police earlier put the death toll at eight U.N. workers and four Afghan protesters. Two of the U.N. staff members were beheaded, according to police, though details of the killings are unclear.

Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra reported from Kabul that people converged outside the U.N. mission soon after the midday prayers.

The mission is one of the backbones of U.N. operations in the country, he said. Some of the protesters were armed with knives, and the chief of the mission was badly injured in the attack.

"The protests degenerated into a very violent attack," he explained.

Ata Mohammad Noor, the governor of Northern Balkh province, said insurgents used the protests as cover to attack the U.N. office.

"The insurgents have taken advantage of the situation to attack the United Nations compound," Noor said.

Noor said Nepalese Gurkha guards were among those killed. He said the guards worked for a private security firm.

The U.N. has not yet announced the nationalities of the other foreigners who were killed, but the governor said they were both European.The Taliban claimed responsibility for the violence, saying it was the first step in a campaign against the upcoming presidential elections.

Afghan officials said about 2,000 people peacefully gathered outside the U.N. office in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, until some members of the crowd grabbed weapons from the U.N. guards, opened fire on the police and stormed the building.

Farhan Haq, a spokesperson for the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, spoke with Al Jazeera from New York.

Ban is seeking more information on the attack, and considers it "a cowardly attack which no circumstances could justify," Haq said on Friday.

Stephane de Mastura, the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), was travelling to Mazar-i-Sharif on Friday to investigate what had happened, he added.

The U.N. staff in Mazar-i-Sharif works in a range of areas, including electoral support, political advice, humanitarian aid, reconstruction and development.

"All of this is designed to provide as much assistance as possible to the Afghan people, which is what makes it so unjustified that this office was attacked," the spokesperson said.

Terry Jones, an American pastor, created a storm of controversy after he announced that he would burn copies of the Quran on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks last year. Under pressure from political leaders, Jones "suspended" the event.

However, on Mar. 20, Jones oversaw the burning of a copy of the Muslim holy book by another pastor, Wayne Sapp.

The worst previous attack on U.N. workers in Afghanistan was an insurgent assault on a guesthouse in October 2009. Five U.N. staffers were killed and nine others wounded.

U.N. staff have been targeted in other countries, including a bomb attack on the U.N. compound in Algiers in December 2007 which left 17 dead.

The bombing of a hotel in Baghdad in August 2003 where the U.N. mission had its headquarters took the lives of at least 22 people, including U.N. special envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

[Source: IPS and Al Jazeera, Kabul, 01Apr11]

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