KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan protests against the burning of a Quran in Florida entered a third day with a demonstrations in the south and east Sunday, while the Taliban called on people to rise up, blaming government forces for any violence.
The desecration at a small U.S. church has outraged Muslims worldwide, and in Afghanistan many of the demonstrations have turned into deadly riots. Protests in the north and south in recent days have killed 20 people.
In southern Kandahar city on Sunday, hundreds took to the streets for the second day in a row, and hospital officials said 20 people were hurt in skirmishes between police and demonstrators. On Saturday, nine people were killed and 80 injured when a protest turned into a riot.
At least two wounded police officers and 18 civilians had been brought into city hospitals, said Qayum Pokhla the provincial health director.
A morning protest in Jalalabad city was peaceful, with hundreds of people blocking a main highway for three hours, shouting for U.S. troops to leave and burning an effigy of President Barack Obama before dispersing, according to an Associated Press photographer at the scene.
A similar protest in eastern Parwan province blocked a main highway with burning tires for about an hour, with more than 1,000 people protesting against the desecration of the Quran, said provincial police chief Sher Ahmad Maladani. He said there was no violence.
The violence started Friday when demonstrators stormed a U.N. compound in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, killing 11 people including seven foreign U.N. employees.
The Taliban said in a statement emailed to media outlets that the U.S. and other Western countries have wrongly excused the burning a Quran by the pastor of a Florida church on March 20 as freedom of speech and that Afghans "cannot accept this un-Islamic act."
NATO officials re-iterated their condemnation of the Quran burning in an apparent attempt to quell the rising anger.
"We condemn, in particular, the action of an individual in the United States who recently burned the Holy Quran," said the statement issued by military commander Gen. David Petraeus and the top NATO civilian representative in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill.
"We further hope the Afghan people understand that the actions of a small number of individuals, who have been extremely disrespectful to the Holy Quran, are not representative of any of the countries of the international community who are in Afghanistan to help the Afghan people," the statement said.
On Saturday, U.S. President Barack Obama extended his condolences to the families of those killed by the protesters and said desecration of the Quran "is an act of extreme intolerance and bigotry." But he said that does not justify attacking and killing innocent people, calling it "outrageous and an affront to human decency and dignity."
The Taliban statement said that those killed during the protests were unarmed demonstrators.
"Afghan forces under the order of the foreign forces attacked unarmed people during the protests, killing them and arresting some, saying there were armed people among these protesters, which was not true," the statement said.
Sher Jan Durani, a spokesman for the government of northern Balkh province, where the first riots occurred, said there were multiple armed men among the more than 20 arrested. Afghan authorities suspect insurgents infiltrated the mob.
In Kandahar, officials said 17 people, including seven armed men, have been arrested.
The protests come at a critical juncture as the U.S.-led coalition gears up for an insurgent spring offensive and a summer withdrawal of some troops, and with Afghanistan's mercurial president increasingly questioning international motives and NATO's military strategy.
Associated Press photographer Rahmat Gul contributed to this report from Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Associated Press writer Mirwais Khan contributed from Kandahar.