Afghan protests against the burning of a Quran in Florida entered a third day with a demonstration in a major eastern city Sunday, while the Taliban called on people to rise up, blaming government forces for any violence.
The desecration at a small US church has outraged Muslims worldwide, and in Afghanistan many of the demonstrations have turned into deadly riots. Protests in the north and south in recent days have killed 20 people.
Sunday's protest in Jalalabad city was peaceful, with hundreds of people blocking a main highway for three hours, shouting for U.S. troops to leave and burning an effigy of President Barack Obama before dispersing, according to an Associated Press photographer at the scene.
The Taliban said in a statement emailed to media outlets that the U.S. and other Western countries have wrongly excused the burning a Quran by the pastor of a Florida church on March 20 as freedom of speech and that Afghans "cannot accept this un-Islamic act."
On Saturday, U S President Barack Obama extended his condolences to the families of those killed by the protesters and said desecration of the Quran "is an act of extreme intolerance and bigotry." But he said that does not justify attacking and killing innocent people, calling it "outrageous and an affront to human decency and dignity."
Eleven were killed Friday when demonstrators stormed a U.N. compound, including seven foreign U.N. employees. A riot Saturday in southern Kandahar city resulted in nine deaths and more than 80 injured.
The Taliban statement said that those killed during the protests were unarmed demonstrators. "Afghan forces under the order of the foreign forces attacked unarmed people during the protests, killing them and arresting some, saying there were armed people among these protesters, which was not true," the statement said.
Sher Jan Durani, a spokesman for the government of northern Balkh province, where the first riots occurred, said there were multiple armed men among the more than 20 arrested. Afghan authorities suspect insurgents infiltrated the mob.
In Kandahar, officials said 17 people, including seven armed men, have been arrested.
The protests come at a critical juncture as the US-led coalition gears up for an insurgent spring offensive and a summer withdrawal of some troops, and with Afghanistan's mercurial president increasingly questioning international motives and NATO's military strategy.