Afghan militia commander freed after 'several killed' in protests

Arrest of Alipur, an anti-Taliban commander from the Shia Hazara minority accused of abuses, triggered violent protests.

    Witnesses say Afghan police fired on protesters but the interior ministry denied the claims [Allauddin Khan/AP]
    Witnesses say Afghan police fired on protesters but the interior ministry denied the claims [Allauddin Khan/AP]

    An Afghan commander arrested over allegations of human rights abuses has been released following two days of violent protests in which several demonstrators were allegedly killed and dozens of policemen wounded.

    Alipur's release, as President Ashraf Ghani flew to Geneva to attend a United Nations conference on Afghanistan, was confirmed by Vice President Sarwar Danish's office on Monday, according to a report by Reuters news agency.

    Alipur, an anti-Taliban commander from the mainly Shia Hazara minority, was detained in the capital Kabul weeks after an earlier attempt to arrest him in the western province of Ghor ended in a shoot-out that killed 12 people.

    Known widely as "Commander Sword", Alipur was accused of serious abuses mainly against ethnic Pashtuns in the Maidan Wardak region, west of Kabul.

    In conflict-ridden Afghanistan, Hazaras have felt especially targeted. There has been growing resentment among many Hazaras against Sunni Pashtuns, the country's dominant ethnic group.

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    Alipur's arrest triggered violent protests, in which dozens of police were wounded by thrown rocks, at least eight security checkpoints and recruiting centres were burned down, and 19 vehicles damaged, according to the interior ministry.

    "We have not received the number of casualties of the protesters in Kabul over the past two days but that 48 security force members were wounded," Deputy Interior Minister General Akhtar Mohammad Ibrahimi said on Monday.

    'Several killed'

    Demonstrators and eyewitnesses, however, told Al Jazeera the police opened fire "indiscriminately" to disperse the crowd, which allegedly resulted in the death of several protesters.

    "The police opened fire on people. In two days, seven people were killed and 70 others wounded in the firing. I witnessed the senseless barbaric action," Amir Yaga, a protester, alleged.

    "The government officials are lying and not giving the exact figure."

    Ibrahimi rejected claims of any deaths by police gunfire. "No live ammunition was used against demonstrators. No one was killed during the protest in Kabul," he told a press conference.

    Another witness alleged a 10-year-old schoolgirl was killed as videos and photographs of security personnel firing at demonstrators circulated on social media.

    "Alipur stands against the Taliban and yet the government arrests him? We wanted answers but instead, the police shot on us. You can find videos on social media," Qasir Saboori told Al Jazeera from Kabul.

    "What was the crime of that schoolgirl? What is the difference between the police, ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] and Taliban?" he asked.

    Ethnic, sectarian divide

    The decision to let Alipur go underlines the struggle Afghanistan's Western-backed government has had in reining in politically connected militia commanders that operate outside its control.

    It also highlights the risk of fragmentation along ethnic and sectarian lines in Afghanistan, even as hopes have been raised of a possible start to peace talks with the Taliban.

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    "It is very sad to see people like Alipur bailed out and the government succumbing to pressure," an unnamed security official told Reuters.

    "It is going to turn into a pattern where even if the security forces arrest a wanted criminal, the government just frees them," he said. "Security forces will lose faith in the government."

    Like many militia strongmen, Alipur enjoyed high-level political backing that enabled him to defy attempts to arrest him.

    He also has wide support among the Hazaras, who are embittered by what they see as government inaction following a string of attacks on Shia targets by the ISIL group.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies