David Nelson - Seven United Nations workers have been executed in the northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-e-Sharif, two of them by beheading, by demonstrators protesting the burning of a Koran at a church in Florida.
The victims of the worst-ever attack on UN personnel in Afghanistan included five guards from Nepal, and civilian staff from Norway, Sweden and Romania. Four local residents were also killed.
UN officials told The Daily Telegraph the final toll could rise as high as 20, and there were unconfirmed reports that the head of the United Nations Military Assistance Mission (Unama) in Mazar-e-Sharif had also been seriously injured
Local residents said about 2,000 demonstrators attacked UN guards stationed outside Unama compound, seized their weapons and began firing at police.
Lal Mohammad Ahmadzai, a police spokesman, said the protesters beheaded two of the guards and shot others before scaling an anti-blast wall to topple a guard tower and set fire to buildings.
Few details were available on how the attack took place, but local residents said crowds began gathering there after a cleric at the city's central mosque urged worshippers at Friday prayers to call on the UN take action against Wayne Sapp, an evangelical preacher who burned a Koran at a service at a small fringe church in Gainesville, Flordia, on March 20.
The church is headed by Terry Jones, a pastor who threatened to burn a Koran in September, on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Even though Mr Jones called off his planned action in the face of global outrage, five people were killed in protests targeting Nato facilities in Afghanistan. Pastor Jones told Sky News in the wake of the attack that the US "must take action".
Following the Koran burning, Maulvi Qayamuddin Kashaf, had called on American authorities to prosecute Mr Sapp as a war criminal. Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's President, had also described the Koran burning as a "crime against religion," and called on the US and UN to take action.
It is unclear how the demonstration in Mazar-e-Sharif turned violent, but Mr Noor said 20 "insurgents" involved in the killings had been arrested, suggesting they may have infiltrated the crowd. The crowd the turned on the guards outside the UN compound, and then settled
Mazar-i-Sharif is a relatively peaceful town, and was earmarked as one of the first where Nato troops would be replaced by Afghan forces.
There was confusion over the numbers of dead after Atta Mohammad Noor, the governor of Balkh province, said seven UN staff had been killed, including a woman. Later reports, however, placed the number at eight. Unama said it was aware of the incident, but did not disclose details on casualties, saying it was "working to ascertain all the facts."
Local police spokesman Lal Mohammad Ahmadzai said "two of the killed UN staff were beheaded." General Abdul Rauf Taj, a senior official, had earlier said that two guards were "shot in the head."
Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary general, described the attack as "outrageous and cowardly," while Barack Obama, the US president, said he condemned it "in the strongest possible terms." William Hague, the foreign secretary, condemned the "brutal act".
Security at Nato and UN buildings in Afghanistan had been upgraded in recent weeks amid fears of attacks in protest at revelations that a 'Kill Squad' of American soldiers had killed innocent civilians and taken photographs of the bodies as trophies.
The US government has apologised for the atrocities, but its officials have been braced for retaliatory attacks since the photographs were published.
The UN's representative in Afghanistan, Staffan De Mistura, has flown in to Mazar-i-Sharif to manage the crisis, and was last night meeting local Nato military commanders and the local chief of police.