Afghan government warns protesters as new camps set up

Protest camps sprang up in Kabul after a deadly lorry bombing the Afghan capital last week and the subsequent deaths of several demonstrators during clashes with security forces.

Protesters sit under a tent in central Kabul on June 3, 2017. They are demanding the resignation of Afghanistan’s government over its failure to prevent insurgent attacks in the capital. Massoud Hossaini / AP Photo
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Kabul // Afghan authorities warned anti-government protesters of legal action on Thursday as demonstrators set up new sit-in camps around Kabul, raising security alarms after a week of deadly bombings and street clashes.

Tensions have been high in Kabul since a lorry bombing on May 31 killed more than 150 people and wounded hundreds in the fortified diplomatic quarter, the deadliest attack in the Afghan capital since 2001.

Protesters enraged by spiralling insecurity have established sit-in camps in at least six locations around Kabul, including one near the bombing site, and are demanding the resignation of president Ashraf Ghani’s government.

Mr Ghani has rejected their demands, including calls to sack his powerful national security adviser, Hanif Atmar, and demanded an immediate end to the protests.

“We ask our countrymen to end their protests which have caused problems considering the sensitive security situation and ... open the roads for traffic,” the presidential palace said.

“If the protests continue, the government will take legal action against the demonstrators to ensure security for our people.”

Protesters are refusing to give in despite insurgent threats still looming over the city.

Much of Kabul is on lockdown, with many streets blocked with shipping containers and armoured vehicles, but that has not stopped hundreds of people from joining the sit-ins.

“We must clearly say that any use of force against our civil protest will lead to catastrophe,” protest leader Asaar Hakimi warned on Facebook. “We will continue our protests until our demands are met.”

Any violent showdown between authorities and protesters could spiral into chaos, a threat that has prompted government allies including former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to call for peace.

Last Friday at least four people were killed when hundreds of protesters clashed with police, prompting officials to beat them back with live rounds fired into the air, tear gas and water cannon.

“Unruly protests have proved bloody in the past, and these unfortunate events should not be repeated,” Mr Hekmatyar said.

“I ask the protesters to remove their tents. Roads and streets are public property and nobody has the right to block them.”

The Italian-run Emergency hospital, seen as a medical lifeline in Kabul, has also voiced fears for the safety of its staff with protesters camped near their facility.

The attacks have exacerbated tensions between rival ethnic groups and raised the prospect of a political crisis.

Foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani, who heads the mainly Tajik Jamiat political group, also called on Mr Ghani – an ethnic Pashtun – to dismiss Mr Atmar.

Mr Rabbani survived an attack at the funeral of one of the protesters on Saturday where suicide bombers killed at least six people. He blamed “terrorists within the system” for the blasts, suggesting it was an inside job.

The government has accused the Taliban-allied Haqqani Network of carrying out the lorry bombing and said the funeral was targeted by bombers trained at a religious seminary in Pakistan.

* Agence France-Presse