June 2, 2017 / 6:36 AM / 2 months ago

Afghans protesting after truck bomb killed in clash with police

Afghan protesters set a fire during a protest in Kabul, Afghanistan June 2, 2017.Mohammad Ismail

KABUL (Reuters) - Protesters demanding the resignation of the Afghan government after this week's devastating truck bomb clashed with riot police in Kabul on Friday in a confrontation that resulted in at least four deaths.

The protests added to pressure on President Ashraf Ghani's fragile and divided government, which has been powerless to stop a string of attacks in the capital that have killed hundreds of civilians in recent months.

Wednesday's bomb attack, at the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, was one of the worst in the Afghan capital since the U.S.-led campaign to topple the Taliban in 2001.

More than 1,000 demonstrators, many carrying pictures of bomb victims, rallied in the morning near the site of the blast, which killed more than 80 people and wounded 460. They held Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah responsible.

"The international community has to put pressure on them and force them to resign," said Niloofar Nilgoon, one of a relatively large number of women taking part in the protest.

"They're not capable of leading the country."

Protesters also carried banners bearing slogans such as "Ghani! Abdullah! Resign!" and pictures of Ghani and other leaders with their faces crossed out.

Riot police used water cannon and tear gas to block protesters from reaching the road leading to the presidential palace. There were regular bursts of gunfire as they shot over the heads of the crowd, many of whom threw stones at security forces.

At least four people were killed and another 15 wounded, said the city's Italian-run Emergency Hospital, which is located near the protest site. Some of the bodies, wrapped in white shrouds, were carried by protesters.

A statement from Ghani's office repeated its condemnation of Wednesday's attack and urged demonstrators not to allow "opportunists to disrupt their civic movement and use this opportunity to sow chaos for their own benefit".

Alarm

Afghan demonstrators burn a booth during a protest in Kabul, Afghanistan June 2, 2017.Mohammad Ismail

But in an already tense political climate, the violence underlined the risk of protests exacerbating divisions and resentments between ethnic and political groups within the government camp.

Abdullah appealed for calm in a televised address. In a sign of how alarmed Afghanistan's international partners have become at the violence and possible impact on political stability, the United Nations special representative in Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, also appealed for restraint.

"I strongly discourage any actor from seeking opportunistically to use these very emotional and fragile moments to destabilise the situation and risk further harm to civilians," he said in a statement.

Amnesty International condemned the security forces' actions, which it said showed "contempt for the lives of ordinary people" and called for an investigation.

Slideshow (10 Images)

"While there are reports that a minority of protesters used violence, including throwing stones at the police, this does not justify such an excessive and deadly response," it said.

As well as criticising the government, some protesters demanded that Ghani execute prisoners from the Haqqani network, the Taliban-affiliated militant group that intelligence officials blame for the attack.

"Until we do that, we won't have peace. The only way to get security is to punish criminals," said protester Asadullah, who like many Afghans goes by only one name.

A spokesman for the U.S. State Department said Wednesday's attack was "horrific and barbaric" and Afghans were "naturally expressing their anger and shock at the events".

"What is needed now is for all Afghans to come together to take steps towards peace,” he said.

The unrest and the increasingly fractured political landscape complicates the choices facing U.S. President Donald Trump's administration as it prepares its new strategy for Afghanistan.

Officials are considering plans to increase the number of American troops in the country by between 3,000 and 5,000 to help break what U.S. commanders say is a stalemate in the war.

Taliban insurgents now control or contest about 40 percent of the country. Even before the attack, 715 civilians had been killed in the first three months of the year after nearly 3,500 in 2016, the deadliest year on record for Afghan civilians.

Additional reporting by Sayed Hassib and Samar Zwak in Kabul and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Bill Trott

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