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MAZAR-I-SHARIF (Afghanistan), Feb 7: Violent protests against caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad (Peace be upon him) escalated on Tuesday, with four demonstrators killed during an attack on Nato troops in Afghanistan and a renewed assault against the Danish embassy in Tehran.

Nine people have been killed since protests erupted worldwide, seven in Afghanistan and one each in Somalia and Lebanon.

Denmark, where the 12 offending cartoons were first published, absorbed the brunt of Muslim anger, with attacks on diplomatic outposts, threats of economic boycotts, and the expulsion of Danish aid organisations from Chechyna.

Attempts by Western leaders, religious figures and international bodies to appease Muslims infuriated by the blasphemous portrayal of the Prophet (PBUH) seemed to have fallen on deaf ears, as anti-Western protests remained virulent.

Several hundred demonstrators took to the streets of Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus Christ. Protesters chanted slogans calling for Denmark to apologise and set fire to Danish and American flags in Manger Square, close to the Church of the Nativity.

Positions in the West hardened too, with key officials expressing impatience with the continuing violence and demanding that foreign governments protect their embassies and consulates from rampaging mobs.

A few have suggested that some Muslim states — Iran and Syria in particular — have needlessly inflamed religious passions.

Russian media speculated that current tensions between the United States and Iran could be behind the wave of protests.

“It is logical to think that Iran, which would like to become the leader of the Islamic world, aspires to the role of Islamic leader and is demonstrating Muslims’ power to all,” the country’s largest circulation newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, said.

The Afghan protestors were killed Tuesday when some 700 demonstrators attacked Norwegian Nato troops in the north-western town of Maymana, lobbing grenades into their compound. Three Afghan protesters were killed on Monday.

In Tehran, demonstrators throwing firebombs briefly stormed into the Danish embassy for a second consecutive day, with 20 to 30 protestors scaling the compound walls and another 300 outside hurling stones and Molotov cocktails.

Besides summoning ambassadors of Denmark, Norway and Austria to express its anger over the caricatures, Iran has also announced a total ban on Danish imports as well as any other business dealings with the country “until further notice.”

The Tehran authorities had asked their citizens not to attack embassies, after the second assault on the Danish mission, the state news agency Irna reported.

“(The authorities) have told the Iranian people not to attack diplomatic territory,” foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said on state television. “Nevertheless, Western countries should atone for their mistake.”

The European Commission reacted on Tuesday by slamming Iran’s decision, and also confirmed that talks on boosting EU-Iranian trade would remain suspended until the escalating dispute over Tehran’s nuclear plans is resolved.

Denmark, which remained the top target for protests, scrambled Tuesday to protect its nationals and cope with the diplomatic fallout of the cartoon crisis.

Chechnya’s Deputy Prime Minister and local strongman Ramzan Kadyrov banished Danish aid organizations on Monday evening, adding that he would “not allow into Chechnya anything that comes from Denmark”.

Western leaders have sought a middle ground between mollifying Muslim outrage and upholding free speech principles, but several statements this week suggested that patience with the protests may be wearing thin.

“Violence is no way to settle a disagreement,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday, even as she underscored the need for reasoned discussion and calm.

Italy Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini suggested that worldwide Muslim protests against the satirical depictions of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) were being “orchestrated”. —AFP