By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council condemned an attack on the U.N. compound in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Friday that left at least 12 people dead, including seven U.N. staff.
U.N. officials in New York said earlier as many as 20 U.N. staff may have been killed in the attack. But U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy told reporters the final U.N. death toll was seven.
The U.N. officials said the earlier figure had included non-U.N. Afghans demonstrating against the burning of Islam's holy book, the Koran, by an obscure American pastor.
"The members of the Security Council condemned in the strongest terms the violent attack against the United Nations operations center," Colombia's U.N. ambassador, Nestor Osorio, president of the Security Council this month, told reporters.
He added that the council "called on the government of Afghanistan to bring those responsible to justice."
The confirmed dead were three international U.N. staff and four international Gurkha guards. No Afghan nationals working for the United Nations died in the attack, although five Afghan demonstrators were among the dead, Le Roy said.
Norway's U.N. mission said on its Twitter page that Norwegian Lieutenant Colonel Siri Skare, 53, was among those killed in Mazar-i-Sharif. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt also posted a Twitter message that said a young Swedish man had been killed.
Le Roy said a Romanian was also among the dead.
The peacekeeping chief suggested the demonstrators involved in the attack were more than protesters. Several U.N. diplomats told Reuters they suspected there were insurgents mingling among the mob that stormed the U.N. compound.
"Some of them were clearly armed," Le Roy said, adding that they appeared to have targeted the foreigners at the compound. "We are not sure at all that the U.N. was the target."
"Maybe they wanted to find an international target and the U.N. was the one in Mazar-i-Sharif," Le Roy said, adding that an investigation of the incident was still in progress.
The United Nations was temporarily evacuating staff from Mazar-i-Sharif and reviewing its security in Afghanistan, he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Nairobi that the attack was "outrageous and cowardly." U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said in a statement it was a "horrific and senseless attack."
The U.N. Staff Union, which represents U.N. employees worldwide, issued a statement expressing outrage at the attack.
"The Staff Union requests the Afghan authorities to investigate the incident, to take all possible measures to protect U.N. staff throughout the country and to prevent the reoccurrence of such tragic events," the union said.
The deaths came after protesters demonstrating against the burning of the Koran over-ran the U.N. compound, police said.
An Afghan police spokesman said two of the U.N. dead were beheaded by attackers who also burned parts of the compound and climbed up blast walls to topple a guard tower. Le Roy said no one was beheaded, although one victim's throat was cut.
The worst previous attack on the United Nations in Afghanistan was an insurgent assault on a Kabul guest-house where U.N. staff were staying in October 2009. Five U.N. staffers were killed and nine others wounded.
In October 2010, several militants were killed when they attempted to ambush the U.N. compound in Herat dressed in burkas worn by women.
There have been other assaults on the world body in trouble spots in the Middle East and North Africa.
A bomb attack on the U.N. compound in Algiers in December 2007 killed 17 U.N. staff. The bombing of a hotel in Baghdad in August 2003 where the U.N. mission had its headquarters took the lives of at least 22 people, including the U.N. special envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)