KABUL — A suicide bomber attacked a demonstration by minority Shiites in the Afghan capital Monday, killing at least six people as the crowd protested a spate of deadly insurgent attacks on Shiite communities in Ghazni province, police and witnesses said.
Hundreds of ethnic Hazara Shiites had gathered outside the presidential palace since Sunday night, angry at the government’s inability to stop recent attacks on predominantly Hazara areas of the province southwest of the capital.
The protest disrupted daily life in Kabul, closing major streets, government institutions and businesses. Police said the protest was the likely target of the bomber, who was on foot. Ambulances raced to the scene, and television footage showed bodies lying in the streets.
Ghazni city, the provincial capital, was overrun by Taliban forces in August, and voting in parliamentary elections in October was postponed indefinitely throughout the insecure province. But until now, its rural Hazara districts had been largely spared.
The Taliban has claimed the recent attacks, but affiliates of the Islamic State also have carried out bombings and shootings in Shiite Hazara communities over the past two years.
As the demonstration in Kabul continued Monday, the Afghan army chief, Lt. Gen. Mohammad Sharif Yaftali, announced that the army would intensify operations in Ghazni province and that the Afghan air force had carried out an airstrike there Sunday night against the Taliban. Ghazni officials had complained all week that the official response was too slow.
Sgt. 1st Class Debra Richardson, a spokeswoman for the U.S.-led military coalition, said U.S. forces are “supporting our Afghan security force counterparts as they fight the Taliban in Jaghori and Malistan districts of Ghazni province.” U.S. forces also are providing close air support while being “cautious with our airstrikes to try to prevent noncombatant casualties,” Richardson said. She said officials have received reports that Taliban forces suffered “heavy casualties.”
The rash of attacks began early last week in both Hazara-dominated rural districts of Ghazni, which until now have been relatively peaceful in a province long harassed by insurgents.
In Jaghori, leaders reached by phone in one village said that the community awoke to gunfire late at night and that the few residents who dared venture outside were shot dead. About 5 a.m. last Tuesday, they said, Taliban forces announced on loudspeakers that they had seized control of the area and called elders of Dawood village to meet with them in a mosque.
“We are fighting the government,” one Taliban fighter said, according to an elder and teacher named Iqbal Nazari. He said the insurgents asked for their cooperation.
Villagers said insurgents also overran police posts in Hotqol village, on the other side of the district. Mohammad Ali Alizada, a member of parliament from Jaghori, said 23 Afghan commandos and at least 25 local residents were killed as they fought to repel the attack.
In Dawood, the attackers faced almost no resistance last Tuesday because there was no security outpost. But armed residents from neighboring areas later helped villagers drive out the attackers, who they said killed four people.
Taliban forces attacked adjoining Malistan district on Thursday from three directions, triggering heavy clashes with Afghan security forces and local armed residents, according to its deputy police chief, Aref Rezai. On Sunday, Rezai said, Taliban fighters attacked the district center, but more than 50 insurgents were killed.
Until recently, Jaghori was known as a bastion of tranquility and development. Even though Taliban forces had besieged Ghazni city in August, triggering four days of fighting that left several hundred civilians and security forces dead, Jaghori residents were stunned when their peaceful district was attacked from at least two directions last week.
In neighboring Uruzgan province, residents described a repeated onslaught of Taliban attacks over the past two weeks that have killed dozens of troops, including elite forces.
A recent report by a U.S. government watchdog agency said casualties among Afghan government forces have reached record levels, while the government controls just a little over half the country. The recent attacks in rural Ghazni represent a new target for the insurgents, ethnic Pashtuns who have previously left these Hazara strongholds alone.
In a statement on its website Wednesday, the Taliban said the attacks were “not against any specific race, ethnicity or sect” but are “against targets associated with the Kabul administration just like the rest of the country.” If anyone “is seen as a fighter with a weapon in his hand, the Mujahideen will consider them an enemy and take military actions against them,” it said.
Ghazni’s Pashtun districts have long been insecure. In parliamentary elections in 2010, Hazaras won all 11 seats in the province because no voting could be conducted in Pashtun areas. The decision to postpone voting there in October angered Hazara leaders.
On Sunday night, as reports spread of worsening Taliban attacks in the Hazara districts, hundreds of young Hazaras in Kabul took to the streets, walking miles across the capital in the rain toward the presidential palace and chanting: “Jaghori! Malistan! Security now!”
Pamela Constable in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.