Some 2,000 Afghan students protested in Jalalabad yesteday. Protesters burned an effigy of U.S. President George W. Bush over a brief report in "Newsweek" magazine that claimed that American interrogators at Guantanamo Bay had placed Korans on toilets in a bid to force confessions from suspects. In at least one case, the report said interrogators "flushed a holy book down the toilet."
But today, the protests in the eastern Afghan city turned violent.
From Jalalabad, RFE/RL's Afghan Service correspondent Dawood Wafa said the protests started around 8 a.m. local time at the medical faculty of the city's university. Wafa said police opened fire after demonstrators started throwing stones at homes, cars, and offices.
"They [protesters] went to the government offices. First they threw stones, then burned the two-story government building," Wafa said. "They then went to the UNAMA [United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan] office, ACBAR [Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief] Aid agency, Sweden Committee, the Pakistan consulate, UN hostel, and some other offices and burned the offices and their documents. Some of these places are still on fire. Now the situation is somewhat under control, but the national army and police are trying to bring the situation under control."
Fazel Mohammad Ibrahimi, head of the provincial health department, said four protesters were killed and 50 wounded after Afghan police, backed by U.S. troops, opened fire in a bid to control rioting. But other sources are quoted as saying as two or three protesters were killed.
RFE/RL's Afghan Service reported that calm had returned to Jalalabad by evening, and that some shops had reopened. The Afghan Interior Ministry has sent a delegation to the city to investigate today's violence.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a key U.S. ally, commented on the events during a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels. "The [protest] event this morning shows two things," he said. "One, that Afghanistan is a democratic state. Two, that Afghanistan, as [a] democratic state, is not yet ready with institutions to handle it."
The protesters were demanding the release of all prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, and that U.S. troops not stay too long in Afghanistan.
"We cannot tolerate this American act of abuse against the Koran, placing our holy book in a toilet. It is clear to the whole Muslim world that America is disrespecting our religion."
University student and protester Ahmad Gul spoke to reporters in Jalalabad.
"We cannot tolerate this American act of abuse against the Koran, placing our holy book in a toilet. It is clear to the whole Muslim world that America is disrespecting our religion. We can't tolerate this anymore," Gul said.
But in Kabul, Afghan Supreme Court Chief Justice Mawlawi Fazl Hadi Shinwari cautioned that the allegations fueling the anger were so far unproven.
"I have the newspaper in front of me, Americans have announced that such a thing has not happened even in lower levels in Guantanamo. They say they have always shown respect to all religions. In Guantanamo the direction of qebla [the signs showing the direction of praying] could be seen, there are Korans and praying carpets available, and Azan [the calling of people for prayer] is done over a loudspeaker," Shinwari said.
RFE/RL's Afghan Service reports that the situation in Jalalabad has calmed, although several buildings are still burning.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai commented on the protests during a news conference today at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
"It is not the anti-American sentiment. It is a protest over news of the [alleged] desecration of the holy Koran in Guantanamo. It is also a manifestation of democracy. Afghanistan is now a democratic country. People can come out and protest and demonstrate and express themselves," Karzai said.
Neighboring Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, expressed "deep concern" this week over the desecration reports and called for an investigation.U.S. Investigating
Speaking at a Pentagon briefing yesterday, U.S. Defense Department spokesman Larry Di Rita did not answer a question from a reporter as to whether interrogators had flushed the Koran down a toilet.
In Kabul, a U.S. military spokesman said U.S. officials are taking the desecration reports seriously.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said U.S. officials are looking into the matter.
"The allegations out there are certainly serious, and it would be important to have them be looked into. I know the U.S. military, who you check with on this, would treat any kinds of violations of religious rights of detainees very seriously. Obviously, the destruction of any kind of holy book -- whether it's a Bible or Koran, or any other document like that -- is something that's reprehensible and not in keeping with U.S. policies or practices," Casey said.
Peaceful protests reportedly took place today in other areas that are former Taliban strongholds, including neighboring Laghman Province and Khost to the south. In the southern city of Kandahar, President Karzai's hometown, RFE/RL's Afghan Service correspondent also witnessed a peaceful rally.
The protests are likely to be on the agenda when Karzai holds scheduled talks with Bush later this month in Washington.
The United States has faced steady Muslim outrage over reports it has abused detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay. U.S. forces are holding more than 500 people at the Cuban facility, many of them Al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan following the 11 September 2001 attacks.