Afghan police Wednesday fired into the air to disperse protesters who tried to scale the walls of a building near the President’s palace as anger boiled over at the murder of seven members of the Hazara ethnic minority by Islamist militants.
Live television pictures from a protest march by thousands of Hazara showed members of the crowd scatter as police fired warning shots. The images showed one young woman being carried away, but it was unclear if she had been hit by gunfire.
In one of the biggest demonstrations in Kabul in years, thousands of protesters marched through the Afghan capital to demand government action after the killers dumped the partially beheaded bodies of their victims.
The Hazara are a Persian-speaking, mainly Shia minority who have long faced persecution in Afghanistan, with thousands massacred by the Taliban and al Qaeda in the 1990s, but a series of murders and kidnappings this year has stoked a mood of growing despair.
“The only way to prevent such crimes in the future is to take over all government offices until they wake up and make a decision,” said demonstrator Sayed Karim, 40, one of thousands who filled the whole of Mazari Square in western Kabul.
Besides swelling the daily toll of killings, the deaths of the seven Hazara, who included three women and two children, have heightened the risk that sectarian hatred will further poison the climate in a country made up of a mix of different ethnicities.
Bearing the green-draped coffins of the dead and carrying banners with slogans such as “The Taliban are committing crimes and the government is supporting them”, the crowd marched more than 10 km (six miles) to the presidential palace.
“We have come here to ask the government to give us the perpetrators, so we can take revenge,” said Taranom Sayedi, another protester.
President Ashraf Ghani has condemned the killings and promised an investigation but they have fueled a growing sense of insecurity since the Taliban briefly seized control of the key northern city of Kunduz in late September.
Ghani’s national unity government has come under increasing pressure to address parliament on the worsening security situation.
“This sends a very dangerous message to the people of Afghanistan, its government and its international allies,” said Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi, speaker of the lower house of parliament.
“This issue doesn’t belong to a family, a tribe or an ethnic group, but it belongs to all Afghans.”
The killings in the southern province of Zabul occurred amid fighting between rival Taliban factions and Islamic State militants that has underlined the risk of further fragmentation, complicating any reopening of the peace process and creating the risk of more generalized anarchy.
Demonstrators said Hazara people were being killed every day on the roads between Ghazni, Bamyan and Wardak provinces to the west of Kabul, where the Taliban control much of the countryside after international forces stopped most combat operations last year.
Besides the Taliban and Islamic State, many Hazara have directed their anger against the Pashtun, the largest ethnic group, from which the Islamist movements recruit most of their followers.
“We’re from this country,” said a demonstrator who gave her name only as Sohaila. “We have to have the same rights as other citizens.”