KABUL — An anti-government protest spiraled into a deadly street battle Friday, with security forces opening fire and using armored vehicles to chase demonstrators angered by a massive truck bombing earlier this week.
At least two demonstrators were killed, according to police, one of whom was reported to be the son of a senior legislator. There were unconfirmed reports of up to eight people dead and 10 wounded in the melee, which lasted for several hours and shut down central Kabul.
Before noon, thousands of people converged on the site of Wednesday’s blast in Kabul’s diplomatic zone, shouting chants against President Ashraf Ghani and hoisting banners with gruesome photographs from the bombing. The attack left more than 100 people dead and 450 injured.
The march — which included professionals, students and civic activists — remained largely peaceful until one group of protesters tried to reach the gates of Ghani’s palace three blocks away.
Security forces opened fire with mostly warning shots in the air, but protesters and others later claimed that gunfire caused casualties. One body was taken to a hospital, leaving a large pool of blood.
Another group pelted stones at lines of riot police around the blast site. Then army vehicles moved in, chasing protesters from the area and firing heavy barrages of shots, mostly into the air.
The tumult died down briefly when the call to prayer sounded around 1:30 p.m., but it resumed afterward with gunfire and sirens heard for hours.
Police officials said that two protesters had died and that 25 police officers had been injured by stones. They said some demonstrators were carrying weapons and had shot toward the security forces.
Relatives and associates confirmed that the son of Mohammed Salem Izedyar, the deputy leader of the Afghan senate and a senior member of the opposition Jamiat-i-Islami party, had died while taking part in the demonstrations.
The protesters kept up constant chants of “Death to Ghani,” as well as “Death to Pakistan” and “Death to America.” They burned effigies of President Ghani and demanded that he and his government resign.
They also demanded the execution of prisoners from the Taliban and the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based Taliban faction that many Afghans blame for previous assaults and bombings. Ghani reportedly issued orders for some executions after the bombing, but it was not known if they had been carried out.
“We want those who did this brutal attack to be punished,” said Noor Ahmed, 41, a lawyer at the protest. “They should hang the Taliban, use force, take revenge. They should do whatever it takes to stop this.”
There was no immediate public response from Ghani’s office, although the president made a somber speech after the Wednesday bombing and vowed to increase security measures.
The United Nations’ special representative to Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, warned that the protests could lead to further violence and strongly urged opportunists not to use the emotional moment to cause instability.
“The genuine anger expressed by the protesters, many of whom suffered the loss of family and friends, is fully understandable,” he said. “But this tragic week has already added too much civilian suffering to Afghanistan, and further violence will not solve any problems.”
Afghan forces have been struggling to contain an aggressive Taliban insurgency and additional attacks by regional militants linked to the Islamic State. No group has claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s bombing, but the Taliban denied any links.
The government has been weakened by internal disputes, and public disillusionment with its failure to provide jobs and security has grown steadily.
Opposition groups have repeatedly called the government illegitimate because it was brokered by U.S. officials after a fraud-plagued 2014 election, and the bombing and violence this week is likely to put intense pressure on Ghani.
Kabul has been the site of numerous bombings and ground assaults by Taliban and Islamic State forces in the past several years. But Wednesday’s attack was especially shocking, both because of the high number of casualties and because a truck filled with explosives was able to enter one of the most heavily protected areas of the city.
The horrific bombing was also especially offensive because the attackers struck during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, during which people pray, fast and try to avoid disputes. One group of protesters set up a prayer tent in the street and vowed to stay there until the president resigns.
There are 8,000 U.S. troops supporting the Afghan government against insurgent forces, but U.S. military leaders say several thousand more are required to stabilize the situation. It is unclear whether the Trump administration will decide to send them or what more can be done to reinforce security in the capital and across the country.
“This government cannot protect us, and it is being very irresponsible,” said a medical doctor among the protesters who gave her name as Simin, 34. “I was working in the emergency room all day after the bombing. There were so many victims, we couldn’t count them, and we had to lay them in the garden. How can our country go on like this?”