Kabul: Former insurgents who had renounced the Taliban and were in a reintegration program are suspected of taking an assault rifle from a Nepalese guard and opening fire during the anti-Quran-burning riot last week that left seven UN workers dead, Afghan officials said on Wednesday.
Parliamentarian Mohammad Akbari said government investigators have identified three men they believe were involved in the killing of three UN staff members and four Nepalese guards in the April 01 attack against the UN headquarters in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Four protesters also were killed.
The men were arrested the day of the riot. It began as a peaceful demonstration, but after crowds stormed the building and set fires, some protesters seized weapons and started shooting.
"They had one Kalashnikov which they took from a guard. They fired, according to witnesses," said Akbari, who was part of the investigating team. "They have been recognised by witnesses."
He did not say how many people the suspects are thought to have killed. It remains unclear how the protesters died.
A chief investigator with the Interior Ministry, Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, said one of the men disassembled the AK-47 and took it back to the house where he was staying. The weapon, he said, was found.
It was unclear who is thought to have done the shooting or if more than one weapon was involved. At least one UN staffer was killed with a knife to the throat.
Yarmand said two suspects were believed to be directly involved, and that there was evidence that they fired the weapon. The role of the third was unclear.
Akbari said the suspects were former insurgents who had renounced the Taliban and were in a reintegration program. He said all three were from Balkh province, of which Mazar-i-Sharif is the capital.
The program aims to attract low- to midlevel fighters to join the government with promises of jobs, literacy and vocational training plus development aid for their villages.
In February, a NATO official said that nearly 900 militants had quit the fight and enrolled in the program. The Afghan government has not confirmed that number. There are varying estimates of the number of insurgents fighting in Afghanistan, but the most often quoted estimate is 25,000.
Neither Akbari nor Yarmand provided further detail, but both said the men have denied killing anyone. No one has been charged as the investigation is still under way, they said. A total of 17 men were being questioned in connection with the riot.
There have been almost daily protests across Afghanistan against the Quran-burning last month at a small church in Gainesville, Florida. Most have not turned violent, but 10 people were killed in two days of protests in the southern city of Kandahar.
Swedish troops close to Mazar-i-Sharif had offered to help Afghan security forces police last week`s demonstration before it turned violent, but the Afghans turned the offer down, fearing their presence could fuel unrest, Stefan Paris, a spokesman for Germany`s defence minister, said on Wednesday in Berlin. Germany holds overall responsibility for the command in Afghanistan`s north.
Even after a top NATO commander in the region learned that the protest had turned violent, an Afghan official called the command and said the situation was under control, Paris said. Demonstrators stormed the compound minutes later.
International forces quickly sent a surveillance drone, but did not send troops about two hours after the compound was stormed. They would have been entitled to overrule the Afghan security forces, but Paris said there was concern about sending a bad "signal”. Mazar-i-Sharif is one of seven areas of the nation where Afghan forces are slated to take the lead in security starting in July.
Anti-foreigner feeling in Afghanistan seems to be running at an all-time high. In Kabul, the capital, many international aid organisations and embassies have restricted the movements, or locked down, their foreign staff.
Fighting in Afghanistan has intensified, with insurgents leaving their hideouts in neighbouring Pakistan as the spring fighting season gets under way.