MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan—Officials are painting the weekend killings at the United Nations mission in northern Afghanistan’s largest city—which sparked cascading violence across the nation—as the handiwork of a small band of insurgents that used a protest against a Quran-burning as cover for a murderous plot.WSJ’s Dion Nissenbaum reports on the Journal’s investigation into last week’s massacre in Kabul, Afghanistan that killed seven U.S. workers.
But a Wall Street Journal reconstruction of Friday’s assault, based on unreleased videos, interviews with demonstrators and the U.N.’s own recounting of events, shows a more complex picture and indicates that ordinary Afghan demonstrators played a critical role in the attack.
Stirred to action by a Quran-burning at a Florida church, thousands of people swarmed past hapless Afghan police officers, heading toward a lightly protected U.N. compound. There, members of the tight-knit staff had been paying little attention to the angry protest unfolding at the city’s central mosque.
Mazar-e-Sharif has long been considered one of the safest cities in Afghanistan. So the diverse U.N. staff—including a female Norwegian fighter pilot, a seasoned Russian diplomat and German woman who had been at the mission for only a week or so—took few precautions even when the mob converged on their compound, burned an American flag and threw stones at the blast walls.By sunset, seven U.N. workers were dead. In the ensuing days, demonstrations cascaded across Afghanistan, claiming more lives Saturday and Sunday in Kandahar, far to the south.
Based on interviews with survivors, Staffan de Mistura, head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, concluded that a handful of insurgents—including Afghans with accents suggesting they came from other parts of the country—spearheaded Friday’s attack on a safe room in the compound.
The rioting, which the Taliban say erupted spontaneously, adds a disturbing new threat in a country that is fighting a mostly rural insurgency. Foreign and local military forces alike are ill-prepared for riot control. “Every security-force leader’s worst nightmare is being confronted by essentially a mob,” said Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of 150,000 U.S.-led coalition forces, in an interview Sunday, “especially [a mob] that can be influenced by individuals that want to incite violence, who want to try to hijack passions, in this case, perhaps understandable passions.”The Quran-burning, held March 20 at the Dove World Outreach Center by church leader Terry Jones in Gainesville, Fla., was “hateful, extremely disrespectful and enormously intolerant,” Gen. Petraeus said.
Mr. Jones called Gen. Petraeus’ remarks “unconstitutional” and disputed that his actions complicate U.S. efforts to fight the Taliban. “I do not necessarily think that our actions make his job more difficult,” he said in an interview Sunday. “The Taliban or radical Islam will use any excuse to incite more violence. If they don’t have one, they will make up an excuse.”
Friday, thousands of people gathered in Mazar-e-Sharif’s revered Blue Mosque. Speaker after speaker denounced the Quran-burning, which for Muslims is abhorrent because Islam teaches that the physical book is holy.
“Stand up against the enemies of the Quran with your pen,” one of the men shouted from the podium, videos show. “Stand up against them with your voices. Stand up against them with weapons. It is everyone’s right to stand up against them and make a jihad.”
The protesters then surprised police by pouring into the street and marching toward the U.N. office, more than a mile away. At one point, according to videos reviewed by the Journal, the badly outnumbered police tried to use a six-foot wood beam to hold back the crowd. The protesters easily surged past.
Only about 60 police were deployed, and they appeared uncertain how to respond. Initial attempts to disperse the crowd by firing warning shots appeared only to inflame the demonstrators. The besieged U.N. staffers headed to two safe rooms intended to shield against intruders and bombs.
They phoned for help from the nearby military bases of German and Swedish forces, according to a person briefed on the situation. The U.S.-led military said the situation “escalated rapidly” and that a swift-reaction team didn’t arrive until after rioters were gone.
Once demonstrators flooded the compound, a dozen Afghan police guards—the first line of defense—dropped their weapons, said Brig. Gen. Esmatullah Alizai, the provincial police chief. “They were surrounded and confused,” he said.
Inside the compound, a small contingent of Nepalese Gurkha guards working for the U.N. faced a conundrum: They were under U.N. orders not to open fire on demonstrators. The videos show one guard feebly trying to wave an elderly demonstrator out of the compound.
Nearby, videos show, demonstrators used bent metal rods to smash a row of white U.N. SUVs.
Among those attacking the U.N. vehicles was a young religious student from a small village not far from the city. The student said in an interview that he and one of his friends found a propane tank that they shoved under one vehicle and set off an explosion.
Nearby, the student said, two Afghan policemen were hiding with a foreigner behind a tanker. When one of the officers shot and injured a young demonstrator, the student said he saw a chance to disarm him.
“Grab his weapon,” the student said he shouted to his friend, who wrestled a Kalashnikov assault rifle and used it to shoot the unarmed foreigner.
Inside the building, other attackers targeted one of the safe rooms. The door proved little protection against the mob. As intruders penetrated the safe room, Pavel Ershov, a Russian diplomat who speaks fluent Dari sought to protect three staff members by distracting the assailants, the U.N.’s Mr. de Mistura said.
“Are you Muslim?” the assailants asked Mr. Ershov, according to one diplomat briefed on the attack. Mr. Ershov lied and said he was, the U.N. said. The assailants tested him by asking him to recite the traditional profession of belief in Islam, which begins, “There is no God but Allah.”
When he successfully completed the test, his life was spared. Still, he was dragged into the street and beaten badly, according to a local shopkeeper who said he participated in the assault.
The attackers searched the darkened bunker with a lamp and discovered Lt. Col. Siri Skare, a 53-year-old Norwegian military attaché—the former fighter pilot—seconded to the U.N., along with Joakim Dungel, a 33-year-old Swede who had been working in the human-rights office for less than two months, and Filaret Motco, a 43-year-old Romanian who headed the mission’s political section.
As Lt. Col. Skare attempted to flee the bunker, she was intercepted by the Afghan demonstrators who had set the car on fire. She was shot with the rifle commandeered from the police officer, one of the men said. Lt. Col. Skare died of her wounds. Messrs. Dungel and Motco were killed elsewhere.
Four Afghans—men also described as “insurgents” by Gen. Alizai, the police official—were also killed. Video footage of demonstrators leaving the U.N. compound shows two men carrying Kalashnikovs and one showing off a large, blood-spattered knife.
As the attackers focused on the four U.N. workers who had been hiding in the first safe room, diplomats said, three or four others, including the German newcomer, were sheltered in a safe room in another building. They survived.
—Yaroslav Trofimov, Zamir Saar, Michael Allen and Betsy McKay contributed to this article.