Tens of thousands march through Afghan capital in protest over electricity line
Protesters from an ethnic minority group have marched through Afghanistan's capital demanding the government re-routes a planned power line through their poverty-stricken province.
Fears that the protest in Kabul involving tens of thousands of members of the Hazara ethnic community could turn violent prompted police to block off roads leading into the city's central commercial district.
Shipping containers prevented the marchers from reaching the presidential palace. A rally in November by Hazaras protesting the beheading of members of their community by militants had turned violent.
Most of Kabul's shops were closed as armed police swarmed the city and authorities restricted the protest organisers to a specific route that would bypass the palace.
The rally passed without major incidents but the protest underscored the political crisis facing Afghanistan as President Ashraf Ghani becomes increasingly isolated amid a stalled economy, rising unemployment, and an escalating Taliban insurgency.
Since taking office in 2014, Mr Ghani has made little progress in keeping promises to bring peace and prosperity to the country.
The US Embassy closed its consular section and warned American citizens to limit their movement within Kabul. Other embassies, the UN compounds and non-government organisations were also locked down.
Protest leader Daud Naji said the Hazaras were demanding access to a planned multimillion-dollar regional electricity line. The so-called TUTAP line is backed by the Asian Development Bank with the involvement of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The original plan routed the line through Bamiyan province, in the central highlands, where most of the country's Hazaras live. But that route was changed in 2013 by the previous Afghan government.
Leaders of the rally said the re-routing is evidence of bias against the Hazara minority, which accounts for up to 15% of Afghanistan's estimated 30 million-strong population. They are considered the poorest of the country's ethnic groups, and often complain of discrimination.
Hazaras, most of whom are Shiite Muslims, were especially persecuted during the extremist Sunni Taliban 1996-2001 regime.
Afghanistan is short of electricity, with less than 40% of the population connected to the national grid, according to the World Bank. Almost 75% of electricity is imported.
Karim Khalili, a Hazara leader and a former Afghan vice president, spoke to the protesters from the back of a truck, saying the "people will never keep quiet when facing injustice". He called on Mr Ghani and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah to change the decision on the power line.
As the march reached the Kabul Zoo, he urged the crowds to peacefully disperse.
Some of Afghanistan's other ethnic minorities - including ethnic Tajiks - appear to be backing the Hazara demands. Political commentator Haroun Mir said that what started as an isolated grievance from one ethnic minority is gaining momentum as an umbrella issue for the many opponents of Mr Ghani's government.
Abdul Malik, a 53-year-old Pashtun from southern Kandahar province, said he joined the protest "to show unity".
"In the past 15 years very little has been done for Hazaras, and people need electricity in their homes," he said.
Mr Ghani's office released a statement saying he is trying to resolve the issue through negotiations with community and protest leaders. Mr Ghani had negotiated on Sunday with the protest organisers trying to postpone the march after Hazara politicians walked out of parliament the previous day over the power issue.
"The important point of these dialogues was to find means and resources to provide electricity to Bamiyan," the statement said, adding that Ghani had appointed a 12-member team to investigate the viability of re-routing the line through Bamiyan and ordered it to deliver its findings later this month.
In a live television address Mr Ghani said he wanted to ensure development benefited everyone in the country equally.
In an effort to assure Hazaras they were not being discriminated against in plans for infrastructure development, he said: "This is a year of active development and I will work to ensure that all citizens benefit from balanced development."