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Afghan President Urges Unity After Protest Over Beheadings Turns Violent

  • RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan

KABUL -- Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has issued a call for unity after violence marred a protest in the capital over the beheadings of seven ethnic Hazaras, possibly by Islamist extremists.

The televised appeal came shortly after security forces fired warning shots into the air to drive back protesters trying to climb the walls of the Presidential Palace, where thousands of marchers were expressing anger over the brutal killings.

The Public Health Ministry was quoted as saying seven people were injured in the clash on November 11.

The president blamed "enemies of Afghanistan" for trying to divide the country through sectarian violence.

"The nation's pain is my pain," Ghani said of the killings, describing them as a "disaster for all of Afghanistan." He said authorities would have "no mercy" on the perpetrators.

Earlier in the day, the marchers carried the coffins of the seven victims -- whose deaths are being blamed on Islamist militants -- and called for a new government that can ensure security in the country.

The protesters chanted death slogans targeting the Taliban and Islamic State (IS) militant group but also called for the resignations of Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, the two main figures in a power-sharing deal propping up the central government that both those militant groups oppose.

There has been an upsurge in violence this year against the Afghan Hazara community, which is predominantly Shi'ite, including a series of kidnappings and killings.

The nearly decapitated bodies of the four men, two women, and a child were found on November 7 in the southeastern province of Zabul, where rival Taliban factions have been engaged in intense fighting in recent days.

The victims were abducted in neighboring Ghazni Province about six months ago.

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Local officials said the Taliban had hanged eight IS militants involved in the killings, but Afghanistan's spy agency dismissed that claim.

UN Special Representative for Afghanistan Nicholas Haysom also issued a statement, saying, "These senseless murders may amount to war crimes and the perpetrators must be held accountable."

There have been reports for several days of fighting between two Taliban factions in Zabul, where militants control several districts and some fighters have declared allegiance to IS.

Mullah Akhtar Mansur assumed the leadership of the Afghan Taliban amid some contradictory reports after Kabul announced in July that Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar had been dead for two years.

Earlier this month, a splinter Taliban faction announced it had appointed its own leader, Mullah Mohammad Rasul.

In the latest confrontation between the two factions, the splinter group claimed last week it had carried out a suicide attack on its Taliban rivals, killing and wounding dozens of fighters loyal to Mullah Mansur.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, AP, and the BBC