KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Police shot four protesters to death Wednesday to stop hundreds from marching on a southern U.S. military base, while Afghanistan’s top Islamic organization called for an end to three days of deadly rioting over drawings of the Prophet Mohammad.
“Islam says it’s all right to demonstrate but not to resort to violence. This must stop,” senior cleric Mohammed Usman told The Associated Press. “We condemn the cartoons but this does not justify violence. These rioters are defaming the name of Islam.”
Other members of Afghanistan’s Ulama Council went on radio and TV stations calling for an end to the violence.
Meanwhile, a U.S. military spokesman, Col. James Yonts, said the United States and other countries are examining whether extremist groups may be inciting protesters to riot around the world because of the cartoons that have been printed in European papers.
“Other countries are having the same demonstrations, same problems. Very violent demonstrations, starting peaceful, turning violent,”
Yonts told reporters when asked whether al-Qaeda and the Taliban may have been involved in days of violent demonstrations here.
“The United States and other countries are providing assistance in any manner that they can … to see if this is something larger than just a small demonstration, if there is a tie to it, if there is an infrastructure, a connection to it,” he said.
But Yonts stressed that they had no evidence to support suggestions that al-Qaeda or Taliban are linked to the riots in Afghanistan.
Beside the four deaths in the riot in southern Afghanistan’s Qalat city, 11 protesters were shot and wounded, and eight police and one Afghan soldier were hurt by flying rocks, said Ghulam Nabi Malakhail, the provincial police chief.
He said police initially fired in the air, but they then were forced to fire on the crowd.
The rioters ran away, but used other roads to get to the outer wall of the U.S. base, where they burned three fuel tankers that were waiting to deliver gasoline to the base, said Malakhail. He said U.S. troops fired warning shots into the air.
Yonts said the American forces fired flares above the crowd to try to disperse them, but he said it was not clear whether they fired their weapons.
A small group of demonstrators later raided a nearby boys school and burned it, said Ghulam Nadi Khushal, the provincial education director. No one was hurt. Taliban rebels often attack schools as part of a campaign against government-sponsored secular education.
Eleven people have been killed as thousands have taken to the streets in about a dozen Afghan cities and towns in the past week against the cartoons, which have been reprinted in various European newspapers. One caricature depicts the prophet wearing a turban shaped as a bomb.
Islamic tradition bars any depiction of the prophet, favorable or otherwise.
Many of the protests have involved armed men and have been directed at foreign and Afghan government targets, fueling suspicions there’s more behind the unrest than religious sensitivities.
“This is something that really upset Afghans,” said Joanna Nathan, senior Afghanistan analyst at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research institute. “But it is also being used to agitate and motivate the crowds by those against the government and foreign forces” in Afghanistan.
Some senior Afghan officials have said they believe al-Qaeda and the Taliban could be behind much of the bloodshed.
There were several other small protests across Afghanistan on Wednesday, including one in Kabul. Hundreds of university students, including women, marched peacefully through the capital, chanting “Death to the Danish! Death to Americans!”