The Taliban urged Afghans on Thursday to target foreign military bases and kill Westerners in retaliation for the burning of copies of the Koran at a NATO air base as a third day of protests erupted, killing at least one person.
At least eight people were wounded in the demonstrations that drew thousands of Afghans out into the cold to express their disgust at the Koran burning, some chanting Death to America! and smashing shop windows, witnesses said.
The Koran burnings at the vast Bagram air base north of Kabul, which the United States has said were unintentional, could make it even more difficult for U.S.-led NATO forces to win the hearts and minds of Afghans and bring the Taliban to the negotiating table ahead of the withdrawal of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.
Muslims consider the Koran the literal word of God and treat each book with deep reverence. Desecration is considered one of the worst forms of blasphemy.
Gunfire killed one protester and wounded three, while at least three police were also wounded, in the relatively peaceful Baghlan province in the north, regional hospital head Halil Narmgoi told Reuters. It was unclear who fired the shots.
A small protest of around 500 people also turned violent in the capital Kabul, with gunfire crackling above the city as police and plain-clothed intelligence officers charged demonstrators wearing bandanas and hurling rocks and sticks, firing low above their heads and sending them fleeing.
A wounded youth lay on the frozen asphalt on a road, blood pouring from his side. Crouched over and cradling him, a relative appealed to the government to not hurt its own people.
Ministry of the Interior! Don't you see we are fighting NATO? said the man, who did not give his name.
Masked men sped by on a motorcycle blasting a battle song played by the Taliban insurgency, while police in machine gun-mounted pick-up trucks picked up the wounded.
Our brave people must target the military bases of the invaders, their military convoys and their invader forces, read an e-mailed Taliban statement released by the insurgency's spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.
They have to kill them (Westerners), beat them and capture them to give them a lesson to never dare desecrate the holy Koran again.
Most Westerners were already confined to their heavily fortified compounds, including within the sprawling U.S. embassy complex and nearby embassies in central Kabul.
STRATEGIC PACT AT STAKE
Large protests erupted in eastern Laghman province and the eastern city of Jalalabad, despite an appeal by President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday for calm after officials said six people were shot dead and dozens wounded in demonstrations.
There were also protests in the relatively stable northern provinces of Badakhshan and Takhar on the border with Tajikistan, as well as nearby Baghlan province.
The venting of fury could complicate efforts by U.S. and NATO forces to reach agreement with the Afghan government on a strategic pact that would allow a sharply reduced number of Western troops to stay in the country, well beyond their combat exit deadline, to oversee Afghan forces.
Underscoring these concerns, hundreds of students in Jalalabad rejected any strategic pact with the United States, saying they would take up jihad if one were sealed.
In the Khoshi district of eastern Logar, around some 500 protesters rejected any strategic deal, while in restive Khost province hundreds more chanted death to America and we don't want Americans in Afghanistan.
The U.S. government and the American commander of NATO-led forces in Afghanistan apologised for the burnings after Afghan labourers found charred copies of the Koran while collecting rubbish at Bagram.
A report into the incident by NATO investigators and a team of senior Afghan clerics was to be handed to Karzai as soon as Thursday.
Martine van Bijlert, from the respected Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), said the demonstrations were a combination of religious outrage, pent-up frustration over economic and security conditions, and groups wanting to stir trouble.
There have been different kinds of outrage. One is the bewilderment felt by many Afghans, and foreigners, that after ten years of efforts in Afghanistan there was apparently still no understanding of how inflammatory mistakes like that are made, van Bijlert said on the AAN website.
Second, there is the pent-up anger and frustration with the international military, but also with life in general.
(Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman,; Editing by Rob Taylor and Nick Macfie)