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12 Killed At Afghan Protest Over Quran Burning

At least a dozen people were killed when a mob of people enraged over the burning of a Quran stormed a U.N. office in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Friday.

Afghan officials said about 2,000 people were protesting peacefully outside the office after learning that a Florida pastor had burned a copy of the Muslim holy book. But then some demonstrators grabbed weapons from the U.N. guards, opened fire on police and then seized the building. Black smoke billowed from the U.N. complex.

Eight foreigners and four Afghan protesters died, officials said.

NPR's Quil Lawrence said protests broke out in several cities after Friday sermons — the first Friday since news reached Afghanistan that the preacher had burned a copy of the Muslim holy book — but the demonstrations in Mazar-i-Sharif turned violent.

The topic of Quran burning stirred outrage among millions of Muslims and others worldwide after the Rev. Terry Jones' small church, Dove Outreach Center, threatened to destroy a copy of the holy book last year. The pastor in Gainsville, Fla., had backed down but the church went through with the burning last month.

In the U.S., President Obama released a statement condemning the attack on the U.N. complex.

"The brave men and women of the United Nations, including the Afghan staff, undertake their work in support of the Afghan people," Obama said. "Their work is essential to building a stronger Afghanistan for the benefit of all its citizens."

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is in Nairobi, said it was "a cowardly attack that cannot be justified under any circumstances."

Gen. Daud Daud, commander of the Afghan National Police in several northern provinces, said those killed included five Nepalese guards who were working for the U.N. and two other foreigners employed at the complex. He said one other foreigner was wounded. Later, Rawof Taj, deputy police chief in Balkh province, said the injured person had died. Taj said 25 people had been arrested.

The nationalities of the other three foreigners were not known.

Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said four protesters also were killed and nearly two dozen civilians were wounded.

Media reports citing a local official said two of those killed had been beheaded, though that could not be immediately confirmed.

Several hundred people also protested the Quran 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 read: "We want these bloody bastard Americans with all their forces to leave Afghanistan."

The Florida church's website stated that after a five-hour trial on March 20, the Quran "was found guilty and a copy was burned inside the building." A picture on the website shows a book in flames in a small portable fire pit.

The church confirmed Friday that the Quran had been burned.

In a statement, Jones did not comment on whether his act had lead to the deaths. Instead, he said it was time to "hold Islam accountable" and called on the United States and the U.N. 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."

Also Friday, U.S. officials said 6 American soldiers had been killed this week during an ongoing operation in Afghanistan's northeastern province of Kunar, where Taliban fighters continue to cross over the mountainous border from Pakistan.

NPR's Quil Lawrence reported from Kabul, Afghanistan, for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.

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