Thousands of Afghan Hazara march through Kabul to protest beheadings

The Hazara have long faced persecution in Afghanistan, with thousands massacred by the Taliban and al Qaeda in the 1990s

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KABUL // Thousands of demonstrators from Afghanistan’s Hazara ethnic minority marched through cold and rainy Kabul on Wednesday to demand government action over the killing of seven members of their community by religious extremists who dumped their partially beheaded bodies.

The demonstration, one of the biggest seen in Kabul in years, was peaceful but there was an angry mood directed at the militants blamed for the killings and the government that failed to prevent them.

The Hazara, a mainly Shiite minority, have long faced persecution in Afghanistan. Thousands of them were massacred by the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the 1990s, but a series of murders and kidnappings this year has stoked a mood of growing despair.

“The only way to prevent such crimes in the future is to take over all government offices until they wake up and make a decision,” said demonstrator Sayed Karim, 40, one of thousands who filled the whole of Mazari Square in western Kabul.

As well as adding to the daily toll of killings, the deaths of the seven Hazara, who included three women and two children, have heightened the risk that sectarian hatreds will further poison the climate in a country made up of different ethnicities.

Bearing the green-draped coffins of the dead and carrying banners with slogans like “The Taliban are committing crimes and the government is supporting them”, the crowd marched more than 10 kilometres to the presidential palace.

President Ashraf Ghani has condemned the killings and promised an investigation but they have added to a mood of insecurity that has grown since the Taliban briefly seized control of the key northern city of Kunduz in late September.

Mr Ghani’s national unity government has come under increasing pressure to address parliament on the worsening security situation.

“This sends a very dangerous message to the people of Afghanistan, its government and its international allies,” parliamentary lower house speaker Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi said.

“This issue doesn’t belong to a family, a tribe or an ethnic group but it belongs to all Afghans.”

The killings in the southern province of Zabul occurred amid fighting between rival Taliban factions and ISIL militants that has underlined the risk of further fragmentation, complicating any reopening of the peace process and creating the risk of more generalised anarchy.

Demonstrators said Hazara people were being killed every day on the roads between Ghazni, Bamyan and Wardak provinces to the west of Kabul, where the Taliban control of much of the countryside after most international forces pulled out last year.

In addition to the Taliban and ISIL, many Hazara have directed their anger more broadly against the Pashtun, the largest ethic group from which the extremists recruit most of their followers.

“We’re from this country,” said a demonstrator who gave her name only as Sohaila. “We have to have the same rights as other citizens.”

* Reuters