Police fire warning shots to disperse anti-Quran-burning protest in Afghan capital; 45 wounded

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Police fired warning shots to disperse hundreds of stone-hurling Afghans on Wednesday in the latest in a series of protests against Quran burning in the U.S.

At least 35 police officers and 10 protesters were wounded, said Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary. Hospital officials said two of them had gunshot wounds. They appeared to be from ricocheting bullets.

The topic of Quran burning has stirred outrage among millions of Muslims and others worldwide after a small American church in Florida threatened to destroy the holy book to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Although that church backed down, several copycat burnings were posted on the Internet and broadcast in the Muslim world.

But Afghan police have claimed that the Taliban are deliberately using the anger to turn the rallies into anti-government protests ahead of this week's parliamentary elections.

Up to 800 protesters gathered at a square on the outskirts of the capital, Kabul, chanting "Death to America" and listening to fiery speeches from Muslim clerics demanding the ouster of the Afghan government and calling for foreign troops to leave the country.

The protesters burned tires and hurled stones at police officers, who responded with assault rifle firing into the air.

Khalil Dastyar, deputy Kabul police chief, said the protest started peacefully, but the crowd eventually charged the police.

"Police opened fire to stop the charge," he added, claiming the protesters fired toward the police with pistols.

Cleric Enayat Ullah said at the protest that he was "ready to sacrifice my life for the Quran, we came here to defend our holy book."

Police officer Mohammad Fahim said he doubted that the Quran burning was the main aim of the protest.

"They say they are protesting because of the Quran, but what I saw among the protesters were our enemies, the Taliban," he said. "They want to sabotage the security ahead of this week's elections."

Parliamentary elections take place Saturday. The Taliban has vowed to target polling stations and has warned Afghans not to participate in what it calls a sham vote.

Similar protests have been mounted across Afghanistan recently. Hundreds protested on Sunday, and two people were killed in that unrest. In another protest by thousands on Friday, 11 people were injured.

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Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report.