By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council called an emergency meeting for later on Friday to discuss a deadly attack on the U.N. compound in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
The 15-nation council was scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. (2100 GMT). Diplomats said they expected council members to issue a statement condemning the attack.
U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said three international U.N. staff had been killed, four international armed guards and possibly several Afghan nationals as well. U.N. diplomats told Reuters the dead most likely included citizens of Norway, Sweden and Romania.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Nairobi 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 Islam's holy book, the Koran, by an obscure U.S. pastor, over-ran the U.N. compound, police said.
Two of the dead were beheaded by attackers who also burned parts of the compound and climbed up blast walls to topple a guard tower, said Lal Mohammad Ahmadzai, a police spokesman for the northern region.
If confirmed, it would be the highest ever loss of life in an attack on the United Nations in Afghanistan. The worst previous attack 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.
(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Peter Cooney)