Afghan Police Criticised Over Mazar-e Sharif Violence
|Publisher||Institute for War and Peace Reporting|
|Publication Date||14 April 2011|
|Cite as||Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Afghan Police Criticised Over Mazar-e Sharif Violence, 14 April 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4da7ebf91a.html [accessed 18 May 2013]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
Observers have criticised the Afghan police for failing to control a demonstration in the usually stable city of Mazar-e-Sharif in which United Nations staff and local civilians were killed.
Violence erupted after protesters gathered on April 1 in the northern Afghan city to voice anger against the burning of a Koran by American preacher Terry Jones in Florida.
After a Friday sermon in the city's famous Hazrat Ali mosque condemning the book-burning, thousands of furious demonstrators marched towards the UN office in Mazar-e-Sharif, chanting slogans including "Death to America".
After protesters forced their way into the UN compound, seven employees four Nepalese security guards and three UN staff members were killed.
At least five Afghan protestors were killed and some 20 injured when police fired into the crowd.
The violence was particularly shocking as Balkh province has long been regarded as relatively stable, and is on a list of areas where international troops are due to hand over control of security to Afghan forces within months.
Critics argue that although officials in Balkh were aware of the demonstration and provincial governor Atta Mohammad Nur had granted permission for it to go ahead, the policing effort manifestly failed to stop things getting out of hand.
Eyewitnesses said Afghan police melted away as protesters shifted away from their scheduled route and marched on the compound of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA.
"When the demonstrators started moving towards the south of the city meaning the UNAMA office there were a few policemen with riot shields in front of them. But when they got to the UNAMA office, the policemen disappeared," Aziz Ahmad, a cameraman working for a private TV channel who witnessed the protest, said.
Ahmad said that as the demonstrators approached the gates of the UNAMA compound, they overpowered policemen and seized their weapons.
"I didn't [initially] see any guns with the demonstrators; they took weapons from the police," he said.
One of the protesters, who asked not to be named, said, "It was as if police had been ordered not to prevent the demonstrators entering the UN office premises, because as people got closer to it, policemen started moving away."
Ahmad said the police's special rapid-reaction squad took about an hour to arrive. These reinforcements opened fire on the crowd, killing and injuring participants.
Security officials in Mazar-e Sharif deny failing in their duty to contain the demonstration, and blamed insurgents for hijacking the protest.
General Daud Daud, commander of the Pamir police zone which covers several northern provinces, said 27 people had been questioned about the attack, and a number had confessed to taking part. He pointed to a Taleban role in the violence, but declined to provide further details.
Governor Atta Mohammad Nur told a news conference a few hours after the attack in which he said those responsible had come from outside Balkh, from provinces like Herat in the west and Kandahar in the south.
His spokesman Monir Farhad said insurgent groups were entirely responsible for inciting the violence.
"The people who've been arrested include some who are young and were governed by their emotions," he said. "Hezb-e Eslami and the Taleban misused those emotions."
Following the violence, the Kabul government sent a team led by member of parliament Mohammad Akbari to Mazar-e- Sharif to investigate. Akbari told reporters that that those behind the killings were a small group of former Taleban members who had recently come over to the government under an ongoing reconciliation scheme.
The Taleban subsequently denied any involvement in the incident.
General Abdul Rauf Taj, acting police chief of Balkh province, spoke of about 20 individuals with links to insurgent groups infiltrating the ranks of the protestors.
However, he also said his men were caught off guard because a local official had ordered a change to the protest route.
"The director of one of the government agencies in Balkh province ordered the demonstration to change direction towards the UNAMA office I don't want to name him right now," he said.
Taj said his men tried unsuccessfully to hold back the march as soon as they were alerted to the change of route.
"We had assigned 200 policemen to the area," he continued. "They did their best, but since the police were not authorised to enter UNAMA premises, and the guards of the UN office had fled, the demonstrators were able to kill a number of employees."
The explanations given by officials have left analysts questioning the role played by both police and the local authorities.
"If the governor wanted to avoid violence, he could have done so," said a social affairs expert in northern Afghanistan, who asked to remain anonymous.
He said the combined power of tens of thousands of Afghan security forces and thousands of foreign troops stationed in Balkh should have made it possible to halt the march early on.
Mawlawi Abdul Rahman Rahmani, a member of parliament from Balkh, said the security measures taken by the police were clearly inadequate.
"The interior ministry should prosecute all the police officials who acted negligently," he said. "They've all remained silent on this."
Kabir Ranjbar, a political analyst and former member of parliament, said that provincial officials must be held to account.
"If this kind of incident had happened in some other province, all the provincial officials might have been replaced or prosecuted by now," he said. "Yet when it comes to Balkh province, they aren't taking it seriously and all they've done is send in a low-level delegation. This shows the government is operating double standards.
"The incident clearly shows that provincial security officials did not put in place any special measures to ensure security at the demonstration, and that they were negligent."
Farhad, the governor's spokesman, said police had done their best to manage the situation, and that if any were shown to have acted negligently, they would face prosecution.
Commentators also criticised the role played by international troops serving in NATO's ISAF force, noting that they only arrived hours after the violence began.
Michael Valentine, spokesman of the ISAF press office in the north of Afghanistan, said international troops did not intervene at the beginning of the protest, as Afghan forces had responsibility for security.
After protestors entered the UNAMA compound, ISAF forces attempted to intercede, but were unable to gain access because of the large numbers of people there.
Only after the public had been moved away from the area were ISAF forces able to enter the UNAMA office and attend to the wounded, Valentine said.
One of the protest participants, Jamshid, pointed to the very different way this demonstration had been handled compared to previous protests in Mazar-e Sharif which were directed against Iran.
"Some time ago, when there was a demonstration outside the Iranian consulate, there were over 30 police vehicles in the vicinity and hundreds of policemen forming a wall in front of the consulate," he said. "They stopped people getting any closer than 500 metres from the consulate.
"Couldn't they have halted this demonstration as well?"