KABUL - Demonstrators hurled grenades at a US base in northern Afghanistan, and a gun battle left two Afghans dead and seven NATO troops injured yesterday in the escalating crisis over the burning of Muslim holy books at an American airfield.
More than 30 people have been killed, including four US troops, in six days of unrest. Still, the top US diplomat in Afghanistan said the violence would not change Washington’s course in the country.
“Tensions are running very high here, and I think we need to let things calm down, return to a more normal atmosphere, and then get on with business,’’ Ambassador Ryan Crocker told CNN’s “State of the Union.’’
“This is not the time to decide that we’re done here,’’ he said. “We have got to redouble our efforts. We’ve got to create a situation in which Al Qaeda is not coming back.’’
The attack on the base came a day after two US military advisers - a lieutenant colonel and a major - were found dead after being shot in the head in their office at the Interior Ministry in the heart of the capital. The building is one of the city’s most heavily guarded, and the slayings raised doubts about safety as coalition troops continue to withdraw.
The incident prompted NATO, Britain, and France to recall hundreds of international advisers from all Afghan ministries in the capital. The advisers are key to helping improve governance and preparing the country’s security forces to take on more responsibility.
A manhunt was underway for the main suspect in the shooting - an Afghan man who worked as a driver for an office on the same floor as the advisers who were killed, said an Interior Ministry spokesman, Sediq Sediqi. He did not provide further details about the suspect or a possible motive.
The Taliban said the shooter was one of their sympathizers and that an accomplice had helped him enter the compound to kill the Americans in retaliation for the Koran burnings.
Afghanistan’s defense and interior ministers were to visit Washington this week, but they called off the trip to consult with other Afghan officials and religious leaders on how to stop the violence, said the Pentagon’s press secretary, George Little. The Afghans had planned to meet with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey.
The protesters in Kunduz Province in the north threw hand grenades to express their anger at the way some Korans and other Islamic texts were disposed of in a burn pit last week at Bagram Air Field, north of Kabul.
President Obama and other US officials have apologized for the burnings, which they said were a mistake.
Yesterday, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, Republican presidential candidates, criticized Obama’s apology. Romney said that for many Americans, the apology “sticks in their throat.’’
“We’ve made an enormous contribution to help the people there achieve freedom,’’ he said. “And for us to be apologizing at a time like this is something which is very difficult for the American people to countenance.’’
Santorum portrayed Obama’s statement as further proof that the president is trying to appease “forces of evil’’ bent on America’s destruction.
The apologies have not quelled the anger of Afghans, who say the incident illustrates foreigners’ disrespect for their culture and religion. Last week, during a protest in Nangarhar Province in the east, two other US troops were killed when an Afghan soldier turned his gun on them.
In yesterday’s protest in Kunduz, thousands of protesters tried to enter the district’s largest city. Armed individuals in the crowd fired on police and threw grenades at the US base on the outskirts, said Amanuddin Quriashi, administrator in Imam Sahib. Seven NATO troops were wounded by the grenade. One protester was killed by troops firing from the US base, and another was killed by Afghan police, Quriashi said.
A NATO spokesman said an explosion occurred outside the base, but that the grenades did not breach its defenses.
In a televised address to the nation, President Hamid Karzai renewed his calls for calm. Karzai did not mention the killings at the ministry in his opening remarks but when a reporter asked, he said he was “saddened’’ by their deaths.
He said the unprecedented recall of advisers was understandable, calling it “a temporary step at a time when the people of Afghanistan are angry over the burning of the holy Koran.’’