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At least 60 dead and more than 200 wounded after attack on demonstration by ethnic group, which makes up 9% of population, over power supply to regions
Sune Engel Rasmussen in Kabul
A suicide attack has struck a peaceful demonstration by ethnic Hazaras in Kabul, killing more than 60 and injuring scores more, according to local reports.
The protesters were from an ethnic minority grup that makes up around 9% of the population, and the attack is therefore likely to widen sectarian divisions in the country.
It was unclear whether the attack had been carried out by one or more attackers, with some witnesses saying they heard two blasts. The Taliban denied responsibility for the attack.
According to the ministry of public health, in addition to the dead, 207 were wounded. Casualties are likely to rise as authorities get a better overview of the scale of the attack. Reuters reported an official in the ministry confirmed the death toll at 61 on Saturday afternoon.
“I was standing by the side of the crowd, behind an ice cream truck,” said one protester, Aman Turkmani. When the blast happened, “first the ice cream cart exploded, then he exploded. The sound of the explosion was very strong,” he said.
The demonstrators were marching to voice their discontent with government plans, unveiled in April, to let a major power project circumvent Bamiyan, a predominantly Hazara province in the central highlands.
Following similar large scale protests in May, President Ashraf Ghani established a commission to look into the issue but government attempts to find a compromise had failed. On 19 June, a contract was signed to build another, smaller electricity line through Bamiyan, but that did not satisfy Hazara activists.
In the hours after the attack, details of casualties were unclear, but some security forces seemed to have been among the killed. As people were frantically calling friends present at the protests, calls went out on social media for blood donations to the city’s poorly resourced hospitals.
“Opportunist terrorists went among the protestors and set off explosions that killed and wounded a number of our countrymen including security and defence personnel,” President Ashraf Ghani said in a statement.
Prior to the protests, leading Hazara representatives in the government had refused to endorse the protests, accusing them instead of fuelling ethnic tension. Instead, the demonstration was led by grassroots activists and Karim Khalili, the country’s former vice-president.
According to a western official, earlier this week, the head of the country’s intelligence service had tried to persuade protesters to call the demonstration off, unsuccessfully.
As was the case in May, the government deployed little, if any security personnel to protect protesters, focusing solely on keeping them away from the city centre. At a previous demonstration, in late 2015, some protesters attempted to scale the wall of the presidential palace, and were shot at.
On Saturday, to keep the demonstration away from the palace, authorities blocked the roads to the city centre, forcing protesters to gather at Deh Mazang Square, about two miles from the palace.
To Hazaras, the power project is about more than electricity. A Shia minority making up an estimated 9% of the Afghan population, Hazaras have historically felt discriminated by the government and persecuted by insurgents.
The worst recent attack on Shias was in 2011 when twin blasts in Kabul and Mazar-i Sharif killed as many as 80 worshipers, most of them Hazaras who had gathered to commemorate the holy Shia day of Ashura.
Despite ethnic divisions in the country, Afghanistan has since the civil war in the 1990’s not seen sectarian violence on the scale plaguing countries like Iraq or neighbouring Pakistan.
Yet, Hazaras have also increasingly been targeted in highway kidnappings, some of which have ended in killings of hostages. In 2015, seven relatives were kidnapped and beheaded by Islamists in Zabul province, sparking protests outside the presidential palace in demand for better protection of Hazaras.
Many Afghan migrants and refugees who travel to Europe are Hazaras who argue for asylum on grounds of persecution. Bamiyan and Kabul, where Saturday’s attack took place, are two out of three provinces, which the UK government deem safe enough to deport Afghans to.