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Afghan authorities free Hazara fighter whose arrest ignited street clashes

Members of the Hazara minority community protest the deteriorating security situation in their districts as they arrive in Ghazni, Afghanistan, on Nov. 12.
Members of the Hazara minority community protest the deteriorating security situation in their districts as they arrive in Ghazni, Afghanistan, on Nov. 12. (Sayed Mustafa/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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KABUL — Officials released a controversial private militia commander Monday night after two days of increasingly violent protests in the Afghan capital by his supporters from the ethnic Hazara minority, who viewed him as a hero for protecting their communities from Taliban insurgents.

Abdul Ghani Alipur, known as “Commander Sword,” had been detained early Sunday on orders from the national intelligence agency, which accused him of committing a variety of criminal acts under the guise of defending the public. He was released after protesters appealed to Vice President Sarwar Danish, who is Hazara, on the condition that he stop breaking the law.

The episode reflected the complexities of Afghanistan’s ethnic politics amid efforts to start peace talks with the Taliban, and the difficulty of trying to control popular militia leaders who commit abuses but informally bolster government forces battling a relentless Taliban insurgency.

Afghan police had previously attempted to arrest Alipur in Ghor province, but he escaped after a shootout. His release came as anger spread across the sizable Hazara community in Kabul and other provinces. During protests Sunday and Monday, officials said dozens of police were wounded by rocks and police checkpoints were burned. Hazara leaders said some protesters were wounded but there was no official confirmation.

“A consultation meeting took place today and it was agreed to release him if he guarantees that he won’t break the law again,” a senior official told the Reuters news agency here.

Monday’s street clashes, which came as President Ashraf Ghani departed for a conference in Geneva on Afghanistan’s future, marked a rapid escalation of unrest among Hazaras, who are mostly Shiite Muslims. Members of a once-repressed minority, they have strongly supported Afghan democracy but have faced relentless attacks by Islamic State terrorists and periodic Taliban abuses. They assert that the government has done far too little to protect them.

Last week, thousands of Hazaras marched to the presidential palace, demanding that the government send more troops to defend villages under Taliban siege in central Ghazni province. Fighting there raged for days while thousands of villagers fled to other regions. 

This time, the source of the protesters’ anger was the detention of Alipur, who has gained heroic status among Hazaras. His forces have often patrolled a highway through Taliban-infested regions in central Afghanistan where many Hazaras live.

“Alipur changed the valley of death into a safe way for Hazara passengers,” said Amiri Yagana, 29, a government worker who participated in the protests. “He is a fundamental pillar of government in Hazara areas. He has fought only the Taliban. Why should he be arrested?”

Hussain Ali Baligh, a Hazara member of the Wardak provincial council, said Alipur has “supported the people and the government” by protecting the highway through Wardak. He said Hazaras have been beheaded, kidnapped and robbed there, but government forces have done little.

 Government officials portrayed Alipur in a different light, saying he had established an “illegal armed group” and conducted “criminal activities” in the guise of fighting the insurgents. In a statement Monday, the National Directorate of Security said Alipur had employed 150 men and weapons to extort traders, harass people and take police hostage.

The conflicting views of Alipur reflected the complicated allegiances among Pashtun and Hazara groups in the belt of provinces stretching from Ghazni in the south up to Bamian about 200 miles north. Taliban insurgents enjoy some support in Pashtun areas; they have harassed some Hazara communities and left others alone.

There have been reports of local and regional deals between Hazara and Taliban leaders that recently collapsed, as well as reports of Iranian influence in the escalating violence. Iran has long-standing ties with Afghan Shiites, but it has also been accused of backing the Taliban.

Despite Alipur’s arrest as an alleged brigand, he was widely praised on social media. Eid Mohammad Joya, a finance manager, wrote on Facebook that Alipur deserved a medal, not imprisonment.

Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report. 

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