KABUL, Afghanistan — Fearing for their lives, the U.N. workers dashed into a dark bunker hoping to escape the mob of Afghan protesters angry over the burning of a Quran by a Florida church.
Hope wasn't enough for three of them. They were hunted down and brutally slain – their bodies found later in three different parts of the compound in northern Afghanistan.
"They were killed when they were running out of the bunker," said Staffan de Mistura, the top U.N. envoy in Afghanistan, who recounted their harrowing deaths to reporters on Saturday evening. "One was pulled out alive because he pretended to be a Muslim."
De Mistura spoke in a somber tone as he described how three U.N. staff members and four Nepalese guards were killed Friday when the protesters stormed their compound in the normally peaceful city of Mazar-i-Sharif. He placed direct blame on those who burned a copy of the Muslim holy book in Gainesville, Florida, last month, stoking anti-foreign sentiment that already was on the rise after nearly a decade of war in Afghanistan.
"The demonstration was meant to protest against the insane and totally despicable gesture by one person who burned the holy Quran," he said.
He also said the U.N. building would not have been attacked if there had been an adequate cordon of Afghan police separating the demonstrators and the compound.
A formal inquiry is under way, but de Mistura said initial reports indicate that seven to 15 insurgents infiltrated a group of as many as 3,000 demonstrators who overran the U.N. compound, which was protected by Afghan policemen and six U.N.-hired Nepalese guards. The crowd overpowered the guards – who are instructed not to shoot into crowds of civilians, even if they are threatening – and the police were not able to stop them, he said.
Four of the Nepalese guards were killed; some were shot in the yard of the compound. Three Afghan U.N. workers survived by melding into the surging crowd, he said. Four Afghan protesters also were killed in the riot.
Protesters had set fire to cars and an electric generator in the U.N. compound so the bunker was dark. It was the only safe place for the four foreign U.N. workers on the compound, including the Russian chief of mission. But the door of the bunker was made to withstand a bomb attack, not the sheer force of a crowd of people trying to get inside.
When the killers forced themselves inside they saw Pavel Ershov, the mission chief who is fluent in Dari, one of two languages spoken in Afghanistan. They beat him, but stopped after he convinced them, in Dari, that he was a Muslim, de Mistura said.
"He spoke the language and tried to draw their attention on himself," the envoy said. "For a moment, he hoped that they would think there was nobody else there."
But using a light, the attackers found the three other foreigners, then pulled them out and killed them one after the other. Two died of bullet wounds. The third was killed with a knife to the throat.
They were identified by officials in their home countries as: Joakim Dungel, a 33-year-old Swede who worked on human rights; Lt. Col. Siri Skare, a 53-year-old female pilot from Norway who was an adviser; and Filaret Motco, a 43-year-old Romanian who worked in the political section of the U.N.
De Mistura spoke to reporters in Kabul after flying back from Mazar-i-Sharif. He was at the airport in Kabul when the victims' bodies were flown to the capital Saturday evening. In talking with top officials in Mazar-i-Sharif, he said he was convinced that the killers were insurgents, not demonstrators.
Protesters confiscated AK-47s from security officers at the scene, but all except one of the U.N. workers were killed with handguns, he said.
Moreover, the mission chief and some of the U.N. Afghan staff workers said the killers spoke in a dialect not common to Mazar-i-Sharif. De Mistura said authorities told him that several of the people arrested were from other parts of Afghanistan, including Kapisa province in the east and Kandahar in the south. Both provinces are hundreds of miles (kilometers) from Mazar-i-Sharif.
De Mistura said he was concerned that the deaths of the foreigners would give people, especially in the West, a reason to argue against continued involvement in the nearly decade-long Afghan war. He said the U.N. would not pull out of Afghanistan, but that he was temporarily redeploying 11 U.N. workers from Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul because they can no longer work in the office, which was destroyed and looted.
President Hamid Karzai publicly condemned the March 20 Quran burning, leading some to blame him for triggering the protests. De Mistura, however, blamed the person who torched the holy book.
The pastor, the Rev. Terry Jones, had threatened to destroy a copy of Islam's holy book last year but initially backed down. On Friday he said Islam and its followers, not his church's burning of the Quran, were responsible for the killings.
"Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of offending culture, religion or traditions," de Mistura said. "Those who entered our building were actually furiously angry about the issue about the Quran. There was nothing political there."
But he said that with uprisings in the Middle East, and waning foreign support for the war, Karzai's government needed to pay more attention to the security of foreign civilians working in Afghanistan.
"I'm profoundly sad and I'm also shocked by what I saw, but we continue our work," de Mistura said. "We are not going to be deterred."