The Taliban urged Afghans on Thursday to target foreign military bases and kill Westerners in retaliation for burnings of copies of the Quran at NATO's main base in the country as a third day of violent protests began.
Thousands of demonstrators gathered across the country, some chanting "Death to America," Reuters witnesses and officials said. In eastern Kabul, hundreds of youths threw rocks at police, who fired shots into the air to try disperse the crowds.
"Our brave people must target the military bases of invader forces, their military convoys and their invader bases," read an emailed Taliban statement released by the insurgency's spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.
"They have to kill them [Westerners], beat them and capture them to give them a lesson to never dare desecrate the holy Quran again."
Most Westerners were already confined to their heavily fortified compounds, including within the sprawling US embassy complex and nearby embassies in central Kabul.
The Quran burnings could make it even more difficult for US-led NATO forces to win the hearts and minds of Afghans and bring the Taliban to the negotiating table ahead of the withdrawal of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.
Muslims consider the Quran the literal word of God and treat each book with deep reverence. Desecration is considered one of the worst forms of blasphemy.
Large protests erupted in eastern Laghman province and the eastern city of Jalalabad, despite an appeal by President Hamid Karzai Wednesday for calm after officials said six people were shot dead and dozens wounded in demonstrations.
Protests also kicked off in the relatively stable northern provinces of Badakhshan and Takhar on the border with Tajikistan, as well as nearby Baghlan province
The fury could complicate efforts by US and NATO forces to reach agreement on a strategic pact currently under consideration with the Afghan government that would allow a sharply reduced number of Western troops in the country well beyond their combat exit deadline of end-2014.
Underscoring these concerns, hundreds of students in Jalalabad rejected any strategic pact with the United States, saying they would "take up jihad" if one were sealed.
In the Khoshi district of eastern Logar province, around some 500 protesters rejected any strategic deal, while in restive Khost province hundreds more chanted "death to America" and "we don't want Americans in Afghanistan."
The US government and the American commander of NATO-led forces in Afghanistan apologized for "unintentional" burnings after Afghan laborers found charred copies of the Quran while collecting rubbish at the huge Bagram Airbase, about an hour's drive north of Kabul.
A report into the incident by NATO investigators and a team of senior Afghan clerics was to be handed to Karzai as soon as Thursday, making clear how the burning happened.
Martine van Bijlert, from the respected Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), said the demonstrations were a combination of religious outrage, pent-up frustration over economic and security conditions, and groups wanting to stir trouble.
"There have been different kinds of outrage. One is the bewilderment felt by many Afghans, and foreigners, that after 10 years of efforts in Afghanistan there was apparently still no understanding of how inflammatory mistakes like that are made," van Bijlert said on the AAN website.
"Second, there is the pent-up anger and frustration, with the international military, but also with life in general."