NATO to focus on violence in Afghanistan over Muhammad cartoons

NATO defense ministers shifted the focus of their Thursday meeting to address deadly protests in Afghanistan sparked by the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in European newspapers.

The change in the agenda will delay discussion of plans to modernize the Cold War alliance to Friday, alliance officials said.

"In light of the events of this week, it made sense for ministers to begin their talks by looking at operations," said NATO spokesman James Appathurai.

NATO commanders in Afghanistan were forced to rush reinforcements to relieve Norwegian troops besieged by protesters armed with assault rifles and grenades Tuesday in the northern city of Maymana. Three protesters were killed in the clash, which also involved Afghan police. NATO insists its troops did not use deadly fire.

The cartoon furor has provoked other incidents across Afghanistan and Muslim nations around the world. On Wednesday, Afghan police shot four people dead during a protest outside a U.S. military base.

The increased tension comes at a difficult time for NATO as it prepares to expand its peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan from 9,000 to 16,000 troops and move into the more dangerous southern region currently patrolled by American forces.

Even before the publication of the caricatures provoked widespread Muslim fury, attacks in Afghanistan were intensifying with insurgents increasingly turning to suicide bombings, reports the AP.

I.L.