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Seven UN staff killed in Afghan Koran protest
MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (AFP) - A mob enraged by a Koran burning in the US stormed a UN compound in Afghanistan and killed seven staff, the worst attack on the world body in the country since the 2001 invasion.
Four Nepalese guards fought desperately against armed protesters Friday but were overwhelmed and died with three workers they were protecting at the compound in the normally relatively calm city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the violence following a battle lasting more than three hours in which part of the building was burned down amid small-arms fire and explosions, an AFP correspondent at the scene said.
US President Barack Obama condemned the attack “in the strongest possible terms”, while UN chief Ban Ki-moon said it was “an outrageous and cowardly attack”.
The UN did not announce the nationalities of the three civilian staff killed. But Sweden named one as 33-year-old Swede, Joakim Dungel. Norway said Lieutenant Colonel Siri Skare, a 53-year-old female pilot, was killed. Diplomats said the third was a Romanian.
The attackers broke away from a large demonstration in the city against the burning of a Koran, Islam’s holy book, by a US pastor in Florida.
“Some of them were clearly armed and they stormed into the building” and set it on fire, UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy told reporters after briefing the Security Council at UN headquarters in New York.
“The security guards, who were the Gurkhas, tried their best but the number was so high that they were not able to prevent it.”
He denied reports that two of the dead were beheaded but said one victim had his throat cut.
UN officials said the Gurkhas, security mainstays in many world trouble spots, were believed to have killed a number of assailants before they were overcome.
Balkh provincial governor Atta Mohammad Noor said five other people, thought to be protesters, were also killed while at least 20 people were wounded in the fighting. About 20 people were arrested, he said.
A police spokesman said demonstrators seized weapons from guards before turning them on the staff.
An unknown number of UN staff were wounded and had been evacuated, Le Roy said. But the Mazar-i-Sharif base would remain open, he insisted, adding that he did not believe the United Nations had been a specific target.
Ban’s chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, and a top peacekeeping official had left for Afghanistan to conduct a review of security at UN facilities, Le Roy said.
The 15-nation UN Security Council held a special meeting on the incident, calling on the Afghan government to step up protection for UN workers.
Hundreds of people had taken to the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif to protest against last month’s Koran burning, and local police spokesman Lal Mohammad Ahmadzai said Taliban militants had infiltrated the demonstrators.
He told AFP that “two of the killed UN staff were beheaded”. But accounts of the killings were conflicting, with police official General Abdul Rauf Taj saying that “according to the initial reports... none have been beheaded. They were shot in the head”.
Friday’s attack was the worst suffered by the world body since a bomb blast at the UN compound in Algiers in 2007 in which 17 staff died.
In the last major attack on the UN in Afghanistan, five of its foreign staff were killed when three gunmen wearing explosives-packed vests attacked a Kabul guesthouse in October 2009.
In 2003 an attack on the UN’s office in Baghdad killed 22 staffers, including top envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.
Before Friday’s violence Afghanistan had condemned the “disrespectful and abhorrent” burning of the Koran at the Dove World Outreach Center, an evangelical church in Gainesville, Florida, calling it an effort to incite tension between religions.
Pastor Terry Jones, the head of the church, told AFP that “we don’t feel responsible” for the attack, adding: “The radical element of Islam takes (the burning) as an excuse to promote their violent activities.”
The protest in Mazar-i-Sharif began after the traditional prayers.
The crowd called on the Afghan government to cut ties with the United States if the cleric behind the Koran burning was not prosecuted, and to declare the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan illegal.

Three Palestinians killed in Israeli Gaza strike

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories (AFP) - Hamas on Saturday warned Israel of “consequences” after its latest air strike on Gaza killed three members of the radical Islamist group’s armed wing.
Medical staff and witnesses said earlier one Palestinian was also wounded in the air strike in the southern Gaza Strip.

They said the target was a car driving between the town of Khan Yunis and the Deir al-Balah refugee camp.
Witnesses said they saw three charred bodies dragged from the burnt-out vehicle.
An Israeli military spokesman said the raid, planned jointly with the Shin Bet domestic security agency, was a preemptive strike against militants planning to kidnap Israelis during the coming Jewish festival of Passover.
“An Israel Air Force aircraft hit a Hamas terror cell... planning to carry out kidnapping attacks in the Sinai Peninsula and in Israel during the Passover holiday,” he told AFP.
The Sinai coast of neighbouring Egypt is a popular destination for Israelis during the week-long holiday which begins on April 18 and commemorates the biblical Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
Hamas said in a statement the three dead were members of the Islamist group’s Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades.

Hamas identified them as Ismael Lubbad, Abdallah Lubbad and Mohammed Eldayah.
The air strike is a “serious escalation” and Israel “will bear all the consequences”, the Brigades warned.
Israeli public opinion is still inflamed over the capture by militants of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid into Israel in 2006.
Shalit is still missing, believed held somewhere in the Gaza Strip.
On Wednesday an Israeli air strike on southern Gaza killed an Islamic Jihad militant and wounded another, but generally the past few days have seen a return to relative calm after a spate of Palestinian rocket attacks into Israel and Israeli counterstrikes on Gaza.

The spate of tit-for-tat violence began on March 16 when a rocket fired from Gaza landed in an open area in southern Israel, without causing casualties or damage.
Within hours, the Israeli air force hit back, killing two militants from the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, in what some saw as a disproportionate response.
Two days later, Hamas militants responded, firing a barrage of around 50 mortar shells at the southern Israeli city of Beersheva in the fiercest bombardment in two years.
On Sunday the Israeli military made a trial deployment outside Beersheva of the first batteries of its “Iron Dome” short-range missile defence system. But officials said that the multi-million dollar system, the first of its kind in the world, could not yet provide complete protection from all the rockets and mortar bombs fired from Gaza into Israel. Each battery comprises detection and tracking radar, state-of-the-art fire control software and three launchers, each with 20 interceptor missiles, military sources said.

Despite the spike in tensions, both Israel and the militant Islamic Hamas, which rules Gaza, appear reluctant to be dragged into another bloody confrontation along the lines of the December 2008-January 2009 war, which killed more than 1,400 people, the vast majority Palestinians.

Arming Libyan rebels risks diplomatic showdown

UNITED NATIONS, (AFP) - The nations staging air strikes on Moamer Kadhafi’s forces will be heading into a diplomatic minefield if they arm Libyan rebels as well, according to experts and envoys at the UN.
With international law specialists warning that any supplies would breach the UN Security Council arms embargo that the United States, Britain and France all voted for, diplomats say a council showdown would certainly follow if evidence emerges of deliveries.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Prime Minister David Cameron have both said they believe UN resolutions on Libya allow arming the rebels.
“Many countries would certainly strongly oppose any attempt to interpret the current resolutions as permitting arms supplies,” one senior diplomat on 15-nation council responded, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Western allies stress that no decision has been taken to arm the rebels, but experts on both sides of the divide are frantically scanning past UN resolutions and international law books.
Resolution 1970 passed on February 26 ordered the Libya arms embargo. Resolution 1973 voted by 10 nations, with five abstaining, on March 17 called on all nations to cooperate to ensure “strict implementation” of the prohibition.
Britain and America are arguing, however, that part of Resolution 1973, which allows member states “to take all necessary measures ... to protect civilians” gives the wiggle room for military assistance to the rebels.
“It is our interpretation that 1973 amended or overrode the absolute prohibition of arms to anyone in Libya so that there could be legitimate transfer of arms if a country were to choose to do that,” the US secretary of state said this week.
Most international legal experts scoff at that interpretation.
Philippe Sands, a specialist on international law at University College London, said it would be “curious indeed” for the Security Council to strengthen the embargo whilst simultaneously authorizing arms supplies to protect civilians.
“Whilst the matter cannot be free from all doubt, the better reading of resolution 1973 is that it does not allow the supply of arms to anyone involved in the conflict,” he told AFP.
“Whilst a clever argument can be made to the contrary, it is not immediately attractive or persuasive, and it would take us back into the dangerous and divisive situation of Iraq and Resolution 1441. Anyone who wants to be able to supply arms to the rebels should go back to the Security Council or its Sanctions Committee and get proper, clear authorisation.”
Philippe Moreau Defarges, a specialist on international law at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris, agreed that Resolution 1973 “clearly” does not allow arms deliveries to the rebels.
But he added that it probably would not stop the countries that decide to start supplies.
“The history of international relations shows that in these cases states can always justify these deliveries. In this case they are going to say that Kadhafi was a tyrant who is committing crimes against his people. They will say that it is a duty of all civilized states to give help.”
With the contradictions, no country is openly calling for arms for anti-Kadhafi fighters and NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday he opposed such a move.
“I’m not ruling it out. But I’m also not ruling it in. We’re still making an assessment,” US President Barack Obama said on Tuesday. Cameron gave a similar comment.
France is “prepared to discuss this with our partners,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said at a London conference on Libya this week. But he and Defence Minister Gerard Longuet have said such assistance is not compatible with Resolution 1973.
NATO has taken over the military command for the air strikes but even talk of arming the rebels causes tensions in the alliance. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday that it would be “conducive to terrorism.”

Philippine tribal gunmen kidnap 16: Police

BUTUAN, Philippines (AFP) - Philippine tribal gunmen kidnapped 16 teachers and students and were threatening to kill them if a rescue attempt was launched, police and local officials said Saturday.
Members of the Manobo tribe seized the hostages -- who include several minors -- from a number of schools in La Prosperidad, on the southern island of Mindanao on Friday, a police official and the local mayor said.
Alvin Magdamit, mayor of La Prosperidad, said a negotiating team was in contact with the kidnappers’ leader Reyjoy Brital.
Speaking to negotiators by cellphone, Brital threatened to kill the captives if a rescue attempt was launched.
“They should behave because if they continue to come into our area we will make an example out of the hostages,” Brital was heard saying in the local dialect.
Brital, a former communist insurgent who later returned to legal activities, is demanding the release of fellow tribesman Ondo Perez, who was jailed for kidnapping 79 people in 2009.
Government negotiators had promised not to arrest Perez if he freed his hostages but police seized him once they were released.