Protesters from an ethnic minority group have marched through Afghanistan’s capital demanding the government re-routes a planned power line through their poverty-stricken province.
Fears that the protest in Kabul involving tens of thousands of members of the Hazara ethnic community could turn violent prompted police to block off roads leading into the city’s central commercial district.
Shipping containers prevented the marchers from reaching the presidential palace. A rally in November by Hazaras protesting against the beheading of members of their community by militants had turned violent.
Most of Kabul’s shops were closed as armed police swarmed the city and authorities restricted the protest organisers to a specific route that would bypass the palace.
The rally passed without major incidents but the protest underscored the political crisis facing Afghanistan as president Ashraf Ghani becomes increasingly isolated amid a stalled economy, rising unemployment, and an escalating Taleban insurgency.
Since taking office in 2014, Mr Ghani has made little progress in keeping promises to bring peace and prosperity to the country.
The US Embassy closed its consular section and warned American citizens to limit their movement within Kabul. Other embassies, the UN compounds and non-government organisations were also locked down.
Protest leader Daud Naji said the Hazaras were demanding access to a planned multimillion-dollar regional electricity line. The so-called TUTAP line is backed by the Asian Development Bank with the involvement of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The original plan routed the line through Bamiyan province, in the central highlands, where most of the country’s Hazaras live. But that route was changed in 2013 by the previous Afghan government.
Leaders of the rally said the re-routing is evidence of bias against the Hazara minority, which accounts for up to 15 per cent of Afghanistan’s estimated 30 million-strong population.
They are considered the poorest of the country’s ethnic groups, and often complain of discrimination.
Hazaras, most of whom are Shiite Muslims, were especially persecuted during the extremist Sunni Taleban 1996-2001 regime.
Afghanistan is short of electricity, with less than 40 per cent of the population connected to the national grid, according to the World Bank. Almost 75 per cent of electricity is imported.