KABUL — Hundreds of ethnic Hazaras rallied in protest here Sunday over the arrest of a rogue anti-Taliban militia commander, resulting in violence that left at least 30 civilians and security forces wounded, police said.
While the Western-backed government of Afghanistan has battled Taliban insurgents for years with mixed success, the actions of local anti-Taliban commanders, operating outside central government control, have led to periodic clashes between formal and informal allies.
The arrest Sunday in Kabul of Hazara militia commander Alipur, known as “Commander Sword,” spread rapidly among Hazara communities here and other cities, where he was viewed as an ethnic hero of the anti-Taliban conflict.
Alipur escaped from central Ghowr province during a government raid in October and is wanted by Kabul for alleged human rights abuses. He had built a reputation as a brutal warrior but maintained strong popular support among fellow ethnic Hazaras, especially those in central Afghan provinces, including Ghazni, that have recently come under Taliban attack.
As news of Alipur’s arrest spread, Hazara protesters flooded the streets of the capital, marching from Hazara-dominated areas toward the presidential palace. The spontaneous rally echoed one a few weeks ago, when Shiite Hazara marchers protested a spate of Taliban attacks across long-peaceful Hazara regions of Ghazni.
Kabul police said protesters Sunday attacked a police vehicle and set fire to a police check post, causing authorities to send added security forces to block their march.
“They used whatever they had in their hand” including stones and guns, said Basir Mujahid, a Kabul police spokesman. He said that 23 officers were injured by protesters.
There were reports that several dozen protesters were also wounded. Avenues and streets across the capital were blocked for at least five hours, residents said.
Ambulances were seen rushing to the various areas where the demonstration was happening . A national committee for journalists said one local reporter was beaten by the protesters.
Sporadic gunfire could be heard from the area where police had blocked demonstrators. Video images on social media showed a group of people running away with barrages of shots being fired in the background and police rushing to the scene.
As evening fell, police said the protests had been quelled, but there were unconfirmed reports of more gunfire.
Earlier in the day, some protesters expressed fear that they would be targeted by Islamic State extremists, who have claimed numerous bombings and other attacks on mosques, schools and gatherings of Hazaras in Kabul and elsewhere.
Two weeks ago, four people lost their lives near the presidential palace, where Hazara demonstrators had gathered to denounce what they called the government’s inability to stop Taliban advances in once-secure areas of Ghazni and the Afghan central region.
Alipur’s arrest comes months after the detention of an Uzbek militia commander in a northern area, which prompted widespread protests that led to the closure of two trade ports with Central Asia.
Several other ethnic minority commanders, seen by officials as leaders of illegal armed anti-Taliban groups, have also been arrested in recent months.
These arrests of popular local heroes have angered many Afghan minority groups, whose fervor has already been aroused by the planned presidential elections in April. President Ashraf Ghani, who is from the Pashtun ethnic majority, has said he plans to stand for reelection.
“If every tribe defends its criminals, we should announce death sentence of justice,” Abdul Sattar Sadaat, an adviser for Ghani, wrote in a tweet Sunday.
To the protesters, Alipur is a hero.
“Alipur is the servant of the country and the people. He is the servant of the honor and dignity of this country,” Mohammad Ahmadi, a protester in Kabul, told the Tolo television network.