KABUL — Afghan authorities put Kabul under widespread security lockdown Monday after thousand of protesters joined rallies to demand better electrical services, marking another challenge for the Western-backed government.
The sweeping response to the mostly peaceful demonstration underscored the fears of unrest spreading in the capital as President Ashraf Ghani’s government struggles on multiple fronts, including battling the Taliban insurgency while also trying to open peace talks.
The protests also pointed to the hardships in many parts of the country that have left many Afghans frustrated with Ghani’s government, a key partner with the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan.
Afghan forces reacted to the demonstration by shutting down most of Kabul, leaving large swaths of the city of nearly 4 million people eerily quiet for most of the day. Police with rifles were deployed at nearly every corner in central Kabul.
The protest — led by members of an ethnic minority known as the Hazara — oppose a decision to move a major power line route away from Bamiyan province, northwest of Kabul.
Intersections in Kabul were blocked off by huge storage containers. Helicopters swirled overhead as the demonstrators tried marching to the palace, but were stopped short by the barricades about two miles away.
Demonstrators claim the decision to shift the power line route toward northern Afghanistan showed a lack of regard for Hazaras, who are Shiite Muslims. Hazaras often accuse the country’s dominant Pashtun ethnic group of ignoring concerns of minorities.
The power line route will transfer electricity from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan, connecting communities to power grids along the way.
“Excluding us from national projects will have more serious consequences than what the government thinks,” Asadullah Saadati, a Hazara member of parliament told a cheering crowd waving placards calling for justice.
In a nationally televised address after the protest, Ghani praised security forces and thanked Kabul residents for their “patience” during the clampdown. He also reiterated promises to bring “equal development” to all parts of Afghanistan.
The demonstration rolled on for several hours, but there were few problems. At one point, demonstrators were doused by a water cannon after attempting to climb over one of the police barricades.
In a separate incident, a group of local journalists was attacked by angry protesters, but there were no serious injuries, according to NAI, a group in Kabul advocating for independent media.