Suicide attackers stormed a police compound with AK-47s, grenades and an explosives-rigged ambulance in southern Afghanistan Thursday in an escalation of fighting that coincides with demonstrations _ some of them deadly _ over the burning of a Quran in Florida.
Six Afghan security troopers died in the attack in Kandahar province. Riots in the same province incited by the Quran burning killed 10 people on Saturday, part of a wave of protests that has forced international aid organizations and embassies to virtually lock down their facilities for more than a week. More protests are expected Friday.
Last month's book burning at the Gainesville, Florida, church led by the Rev. Terry Jones further inflamed anti-Western sentiment in Afghanistan, where many people were already fed up with the presence of foreign military forces and civilian casualties.
Outrage at the desecration also spurred a deadly assault on a U.N. headquarters in the northern province of Mazar-i-Sharif last week that killed seven staff workers.
On Thursday, about 300 teachers, students and clerics gathered outside a Kabul mosque with banners demanding that Jones be prosecuted and that foreign troops withdraw from Afghanistan.
Afghan police closely monitored protesters, who were peaceful in their behavior but strident in their rhetoric.
"America is a terrorist," read one banner. "No to American military bases in Afghanistan," read another.
Sabor Fakhri, one of the protest organizers, said he viewed the Quran burning as a personal affront to him and his family.
"This holy book belongs to all Muslim nations and when they burned the Quran they burned me and my people," he said. "We demand the U.S. government stop such ignorant people. Long live Islam and death to the enemies of the Muslims."
"We didn't send tanks or helicopters or weapons to America, we have sent the holy book, a bridge of knowledge," Muslim cleric Abdul Salam Abad told the crowd. "America claims they are giving us human rights and freedom of speech and religion, but their burning of the Quran shows their hatred of Muslims."
Many Afghan Muslims will attend weekly prayer services at mosques on Friday, and there are concerns that civil unrest will follow angry sermons about the Quran burning, as it did last weekend.
The demonstrations are occurring as Taliban fighters return to the battlefield in greater numbers to take advantage of more temperate weather.
In the attack on the Kandahar police compound, three heavily armed suicide bombers set off a furious gunbattle that raged for at least 45 minutes. The complex sits on the main road between Kandahar and Kabul and houses a weapons training facility, a literacy school and an unfinished headquarters building for the provincial police department.
American Blackhawk helicopters and at least eight U.S. armored vehicles rushed to support dozens of Afghan troops battling the assailants at the three-building police complex in restive Kandahar province.
The fighting was punctuated by large explosions as two insurgents detonated bomb vests. A third insurgent pretended to be an ambulance driver and set off the explosives-laden rescue vehicle after injured officers were placed inside.
"I heard a blast and after that continuous fighting with rocket launchers," said Kandahar provincial policeman Ashrafullah Agha. As the ambulance detonated in a thunderous explosion, Agha cut off the interview and ran to assist his comrades.
The Red Cross said using an ambulance as a weapon is a violation of human rights and the neutrality of health care services.
"Using an ambulance for the purpose of deceiving the adversary in carrying out an attack constitutes perfidy," said Jacque de Maio, the Red Cross' head of operations for Asia.
The assault came two days after the failure of a similar insurgent attack on a NATO base in the eastern city of Jalalabad. In that attack seven insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles were killed by NATO troops as they attempted to breach the base.
NATO said another service member was killed in an insurgent attack in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday. The service member's nationality and other details were not released, but it brought the number of deaths to six this month and 104 so far this year.
The insurgency has increasingly targeted Afghan forces in the past several weeks. Last month Taliban fighters kidnapped 40 policemen in the eastern province of Nuristan. In the northern province of Kunduz a suicide bomber posing as an army volunteer killed 35 people outside a recruiting center.
The brazen attacks evince the steep learning curve Afghan security forces are experiencing as NATO ramps up training and recruitment in anticipation of an eventual withdrawal of Western troops.
During a visit with Kandahar Governor Tooryalai Wesa shortly after Thursday's assault, U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus acknowledged the security failure that allowed the insurgents to infiltrate the police complex, but said that it was part of the Afghan forces' learning process.
"People learn from their mistakes," Petraeus said. "But I want to congratulate them for their bravery and their courage. Because of them the insurgents didn't even cross the first checkpoint."
Associated Press writers Mirwais Khan in Kandahar and Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report.