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Monday, February 20, 2006

Afghan cartoon protesters threaten to join al Qaeda

Dawood Wafa

JALALABAD, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Hundreds of Afghan students shouted support on Monday for Osama bin Laden and threatened to join al Qaeda during a protest against cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.

In an attempt to cool the controversy after a weekend of rioting in countries including Nigeria, where 28 people were killed, and Libya, where 11 died, Pope Benedict said the world's religions and their symbols had to be respected.

Pakistan's main Islamist alliance vowed to broaden its campaign with more protests targeted at the U.S. and Pakistani presidents.

The protest in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad passed off without violence. Students gathered at the university campus chanted "Death to Denmark," "Death to America" and "Death to France," a witness said.

They also shouted support for al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahri.

Shouting "Death to Karzai," they demanded President Hamid Karzai close the embassies of Denmark, the United States and France and expel their forces from Afghanistan.

"If they abuse the Prophet of Islam again we will all become al Qaeda," the students shouted.

Two weeks ago in Afghanistan, at least 10 people were killed in several days of protests over the cartoons but violent demonstrations there have largely petered out.


The cartoons, first published in a Danish newspaper last year and reprinted in European papers, have sparked worldwide protests by Muslims who believe it is blasphemous to depict the Prophet.

In a speech to the new Moroccan ambassador to the Vatican, the Pope said: "In order to promote peace and understanding between peoples and mankind it is both vital and urgent that religions and their symbols are respected and that believers are not the object of provocations that wound their religious feelings."

"However, intolerance and violence can never be justified as a response to any offence, because it is a response that is incompatible with the sacred principles of religion," he added.

Some 56 people have been killed and at least 280 injured in the protests, half of them in northern Nigeria. In the deadliest protests this weekend, at least 28 people died in riots in two Muslim states in northern Nigeria.

A Red Cross official said on Monday the death toll from the riots in Maiduguri, where 21 people were killed, could rise further as some of the 207 people hurt were in critical condition. Troops patrolled the capital of the northeastern state of Borno to prevent further violence.

About a dozen churches, 200 shops, 50 houses and 100 vehicles were razed or vandalized by protesters in Maiduguri who ran wild after police fired teargas to disperse them.

Protests continued on Monday. In the Hindu kingdom of Nepal, about 5,000 Muslims marched through the western town of Nepalgunj and presented a memorandum to the chief bureaucrat of the town. "Punish the cartoonist," some of them shouted.


Pakistan's main Islamist alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), said on Monday it would broaden its campaign. Five people died in protests in Pakistan last week.

Qazi Hussain Ahmed, president of the MMA, was held under house arrest in Lahore at the weekend to prevent him leading a rally in the capital Islamabad on Sunday.

After his release on Monday he called publication of the cartoons in European newspapers "part of the clash of civilizations led by (U.S. President George W.) Bush."

"Therefore our movement is against Bush as well as against Mush," he told a news briefing, referring to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a key ally in Bush's war on terrorism.

A countrywide protest is planned for Friday, another in Lahore on Sunday and a nationwide general strike on March 3.

Further protests are planned and could coincide with a visit to Pakistan by Bush, expected in early March, although no dates for that visit have yet been announced.

Last week, a Pakistani Muslim cleric and his followers offered rewards amounting to over $1 million for anyone who killed Danish cartoonists who drew the Prophet caricatures. The cartoonists are under police protection.

Denmark and Norway on Monday condemned the bounty. "It's murder and murder is also forbidden by the Koran," Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said.

  • (Additional reporting by Raja Asghar in Islamabad; Achmad Sukarsono and Telly Nathalia in Jakarta; Erik Matzen in Copenhagen; Gopal Sharma in Kathmandu; Mark John in Brussels)

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