Afghan authorities released a popular militia commander from the Hazara Shiite community on Monday after two days of protests sparked by his arrest.
Abdul Ghani Alipoor's release was announced by the office of Second Vice President Sarwar Danish, who is also a Hazara.
"Commander Alipoor was released from detention. He is currently at the office of the second VP along with elders and MPs. Alipoor has expressed gratitude to VP Danish for his efforts towards his release," it said in a statement released with a photo of Alipoor at Mr Danish's office.
Hundreds of Hazaras protested in the Afghan capital on Sunday and Monday after Alipoor's arrest, paralysing life in western Kabul. Police increased patrols in Pul-e-Sukhta, Koti Sangi and Dasht-e-Barchi — all predominantly Hazara areas — as schools and local businesses remained shut.
The protests were accompanied by sporadic gunfire. Kabul police said 23 police officers were injured during the protests, while the interior ministry put the number at 43.
The protesters said at least three civilians were killed in police fire. Akhtar Ibrahimi, deputy interior minister, denied this at a press conference on Monday, as well as claims that live ammunition was used.
The National saw civilians with bullet injuries being taken for treatment but was not able to verify if they were protesters or who had shot them. The policemen were also seen firing warning shots to deter the protesters.
The National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s spy agency, which arrested Alipoor in Kabul on Sunday, said he was being held for forming and operating an illegal militia of nearly 350 men in the central Afghan provinces.
"He engaged in illegal activities such as blackmailing landowners, traders and private businesses, extortion and also arming and supporting criminal elements," an NDS official told The National.
The militia commander eluded an attempt to arrest him Ghor province in October, as well as a subsequent attempt in his home district of Behsud in Maidan Wardak province which led to a shoot-out between Alipoor and his men and the police.
“The local police was attacked and five policemen were captured, their weapons seized, when they attempted to stop Alipoor’s illegal activities,” the NDS official said.
His supporters, however, see Alipoor as an anti-Taliban and pro-government leader who was betrayed by the current administration.
“Commander Shamsher has been our hope and guardian and has always been supportive of the government in the fight against ISIS and Taliban,” said Yaseen Shayiq, a 25-year-old protester, referring to Alipoor by his popular name which translates as “Commander Sword”.
"He has fought against insurgency and today he has been arrested for his work. I am here to demand his release," Mr Shayiq told The National before Alipoor was freed.
Alipoor’s arrest triggered an outpouring of support from the ethnic minority Hazaras. The community has increasingly become the target of attacks, primarily by the newly emerged Afghan branch of ISIS. Previously secure districts with Hazara-majority populations in Ghazni also came under intense attack by the Taliban this month, forcing thousands of families to flee.
“He has always fought against insurgents. And also fought alongside the government forces in Ghazni. The government should know he has the support of people,” said Mr Shayiq.
Besides the capital, protests against Alipoor's arrest were reported in Bamiyan, Ghazni and in other central provinces.
“We are stronger and more united than before and there is possibility that this movement will turn against the government,” Mr Shayiq.
However, the NDS official said the protests would not affect the case against Alipoor.
His "innocence will be established in a court of law and not by friends, relatives and supporters,” the official said. “It is our responsibility to maintain the law and order, and any individual who disrupts the rule of law will be prosecuted."
Supporters of the government have praised President Ashraf Ghani’s efforts to crack down on militia groups, who have grown stronger alongside the increasing insurgency over the past two years. Parallels were drawn between Alipoor’s arrest and that of Nizamuddin Qaisari, an militia leader from the north, in July.
Qaisari's arrest sparked widespread protests in the northern provinces that resulted in several deaths, damage to government buildings and the closure of important trade routes. The chaos eventually prompted the return of Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, who fled the country in May last year to escape charges of torture and rape.
Mr Dostum quelled the protests with the promise that Qaisari would be released, but there has been no confirmation that this has happened.