Protesters angered at President Hamid Karzai's (search) sacking of a warlord governor in the west of the country ransacked U.N. compounds and clashed with security forces Sunday, leaving as many as three people dead and dozens wounded, including three U.S. troops who were hit with stones.
Interior Minister spokesman Latfullah Mashal (search) said there were no deaths.
The U.S.-backed interim leader, facing a fresh security crisis ahead of Oct. 9 elections that already are threatened by Taliban (search) militants, denounced the rioting and said he would deal with it "strongly."
Angry protesters took to the streets after Saturday's announcement that Gov. Ismail Khan (search), the regional strongman, had been "promoted" to a Cabinet post in the capital.
Mobs chanting slogans against the government and in favor of Khan turned their wrath on the United Nations, storming and looting two of its compounds and forcing its staff to flee to an American military base.
At least one U.N. vehicle and a guard house were set ablaze, spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said.
The U.S. soldiers were injured by rocks as they helped evacuate dozens of U.N. staff and relief workers to their small base in the city, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said.
Afghan police and soldiers trying to control the crowd fired shots and wounded as many as 10 people, Mashal said, claiming the soldiers fired into the air and killed no one.
But the provincial health chief said later that three people were fatally injured, including a 15-year-old boy.
"His family came to the hospital this afternoon and we handed over the body," Mohammed Omar Samim said.
Samim said 51 more were wounded, including one patient in a critical condition. Most suffered bullet wounds, he said. "The surgeons will work through the night."
The deputy director of the city's main hospital, Khalid Ahmad Tawakul, said he had seen the bodies of two young men.
One of the wounded told an Associated Press Television News reporter in the hospital that his leg and facial injuries were caused by shrapnel.
"I was standing in the street with a few others when national army and American troops were running along the street. Suddenly, someone of them threw a hand-grenade at us," said Bismillah, a 41-year-old man who goes by one name.
But a U.S. spokeswoman dismissed his claim, saying that the protesters had thrown grenades.
"I can tell you with authority that U.S. soldiers did not fire a shot," Lt. Col. Pamela Keeton said.
Keeton said three American soldiers suffered minor facial or shoulder injuries, while one Afghan soldier was more badly hurt. She didn't elaborate.
Karzai condemned the rioters, who also burned the office of a Danish aid group and wrecked the local branch of the Afghan human rights commission, saying they were damaging Afghanistan (news - web sites)'s fragile peace process.
"That's not what this country wants, and that's not what the people of Herat want," he told reporters in the capital, 360 miles to the east. "We will deal with that strongly."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned the attack, a spokesman said, adding that the United Nations remained committed to providing humanitarian and reconstruction assistance in Afghanistan.
The violence erupted as Khan's replacement, former Afghan ambassador to Ukraine Sayed Mohammed Khairkhwa, arrived to take up his post.
Karzai has sent more than 1,000 members of the new, U.S.-trained national army and German-trained national police to Herat province since deadly clashes in August between Khan and rival warlords.
Khan, who also helped U.S. forces rout the Taliban three years ago, still has the loyalty of a sizable private army that he has been reluctant to disarm.
He has refused to take up the Cabinet post, saying he stay in his spacious Herat home.
There was no suggestion that Khan had orchestrated the protests — previous attempts to install new governors in other provinces have foundered in the face of violent protests. Still, Khalilzad said he had called the former governor on Sunday to ask for his help.
Khan promised to make a televised appeal to Herat residents to "urge cooperation with the new governor and work for stability and peace in Herat," Khalilzad said.
Officials are keen to stabilize the region ahead of the Oct. 9 vote, which Karzai is expected to win, and remove an unwelcome distraction for the U.S. military as it focuses on battling Taliban rebels further south.
In a fresh move to undercut the insurgency by reaching out to former Taliban supporters, hundreds of Pakistanis jailed for fighting alongside the ousted militia were released from an Afghan prison Sunday.
Pakistani officials met the 363 prisoners as they filed out of the Pul-e-Charki jail in Kabul, smiling and clutching plastic bags with a few belongings.
"They could have done this much sooner," Pakistani Ambassador Rustam Shah Mohmand said of the release of the prisoners. "Still, I appreciate it, and the Afghan and Pakistani governments want to have good relations."