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7 dead as Afghans protest Quran burning

US Embassy in Kabul puts staff on lockdown as anti-American fury grows

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KABUL, Afghanistan - Seven people were killed in clashes between Afghan security forces and protesters demonstrating against the burning of Muslim holy books at a NATO military base, Afghanistan's Interior Ministry said Wednesday.

The anger over the Quran burning has sparked two days of protests across Afghanistan and tapped into anti-foreign sentiment fueled by a popular perception that foreign troops disrespect Afghan culture and Islam.

The demonstrations prompted the U.S. to lock down its embassy and bar its staff from traveling.

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The Afghan Interior Ministry said in a statement that clashes during a protest in the eastern province of Parwan left four people dead. It said an investigation was under way to determine what happened.

The other deaths occurred at a U.S. base outside Kabul, where security guards killed one person, and in Jalalabad and Logar province, the ministry said.

The demonstration in Kabul drew thousands of protesters, who chanted "Death to America," hurled rocks and set tires alight outside a complex that is home to foreign contractors, police and some coalition military forces.

PhotoBlog: Protests spread amid Afghan fury at Quran burning

Nearby, angry demonstrators set a fuel truck ablaze on a main highway running east out of the city, sending black smoke billowing into the air.

The apologized Tuesday for the burning of books, including Qurans, which had been pulled from the shelves of the Parwan Detention Facility, adjoining Bagram Air Field, because they contained extremist messages or inscriptions.

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  U.S. apologizes for unintentional Quran burning
Feb. 21, 2012: Thousands of Afghans protested against the unintentional burning of Qurans and other Islamic religious materials during trash disposal at an American air base.  NBC’s Atia Abawi reports.

U.S. Gen. John Allen, the top commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said after the books had been mistakenly given to troops to be burned at a garbage pit without realizing it.

"It was not a decision that was made because they were religious materials," Allen said Tuesday, one day after Afghan workers at the garbage pit found the books. "It was not a decision that was made with respect to the faith of Islam. It was a mistake. It was an error. The moment we found out about it we immediately stopped and we intervened."

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A Western military official with knowledge of the incident said it appeared that the copies of the Quran and other Islamic readings in the library were being used to fuel extremism, and that detainees were writing on the documents to exchange extremist messages. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

Image: Afghan protesters throw rocks towards a water canon near a U.S. military base in Kabul
Ahmad Masood / Reuters
Afghan protesters throw rocks towards a water canon near a U.S. military base in Kabul on Wednesday.

As Wednesday's rally in Kabul turned violent, city police chief Mohammad Ayub Salangi arrived at the scene with hundreds of reinforcements who broke up the protest.

"They have the right to demonstrate, but they have to do it in accordance with the law," said Salangi's deputy, Daud Amin. "It is their right to demonstrate. ... We are also Muslim and we say it was a wrong action from the Islamic point of view."

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Several miles away, hundreds of protesters were throwing rocks at Camp Phoenix, a U.S. military base, said Kabul provincial police spokesman Ashmatullah Stanekzai. Shots were also fired in the air at Camp Phoenix.

After the Quran burning was made public Tuesday, more than 2,000 Afghans protested outside the Bagram air base near the capital.

In Parwan, provincial police chief Akram Bigzad said about 2,000 protesters were demonstrating outside a district headquarters when some of them opened fire with weapons.

"In the crowd there were rebels and Taliban who had weapons. They opened fire and fighting started. Four were killed and 10 were wounded. They are Talib," Bigzad said.

A protest in Logar province also turned violent after someone in a group of about 300 demonstrators opened fire on police. Police returned fire, killing one protester, said provincial police chief Gen. Ghulam Sakhi Roogh Lawanay.

Two protesters and two police officers were also wounded, he added. He said the protesters had come from neighboring Wardak province, an insurgent hotbed.

Lawanay said a protest by about 400 people in Logar's capital Pule Alam ended peacefully.

3 Georgians killed
Meanwhile, three Georgian soldiers were killed in the southern Afghan province of Helmand on Wednesday, the Georgian defense ministry said, taking the country's death toll to 15.

"Their combat vehicle exploded following an insurgent attack," the ministry said in a statement of the incident in one of Afghanistan's most violent provinces, which neighbors Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who was in Helmand on Monday to meet his country's troops, said after the deaths that Georgia stood by its commitment to the increasingly unpopular war, dragged into its 11th year.

"The sacrifice of Georgian servicemen is appreciated by the Georgian people... future generations will live in a united, much stronger and more successful country," Saakashvili said in a statement.

The former Soviet country has over 900 troops supporting the NATO-led war in Afghanistan, including 750 in Helmand. Another deployment of 600-700 will be sent this year, making Georgia one of the largest non-NATO contributors in the war.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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