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Afghanistan: Student Protesters Occupy Building At Kabul University

Protests are continuing today at Kabul University, with hundreds of students occupying a campus building after police fired shots into the air and used water cannons to break up a demonstration march this morning. Students are protesting poor living conditions in dormitories, as well as the shooting death of one of their colleagues by police last night. Five other students are in hospital after the violent clashes. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered an investigation into the incident.

Kabul, 12 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of heavily armed police in riot gear are surrounding a building on the Kabul University campus, where an unknown number of students have blockaded themselves to protest the shooting death by police of one of their colleagues last night.

Police fired shots into the air and used water cannons earlier today to disperse some 500 to 1,000 students who were marching toward government buildings and shouting antipolice slogans. It was the first major demonstration seen in the capital since the fall of the Taliban on 13 November last year.

Representatives from the Education Ministry met today with student leaders in an effort to defuse the situation.

Today's standoff follows a student protest that turned violent last night. Thousands of students, upset with the poor living conditions in the university's dormitories, marched down the main road in the Jamal Mina section of western Kabul toward the city center.

What happened next is unclear. Some reports say police opened fire after students threw rocks at police. Some of the students were said to have overpowered police posts and stolen guns.

One student died in the clashes from a head wound, while five others are recovering in the capital's Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital. Several police are also believed to have been injured.

Dr. Abdul Rab Kuhestani is the hospital's director. He told RFE/RL that the students -- all male -- were transferred to his hospital this morning and that all of them are from Khost and Wardak provinces. "Yes, they had injuries in the lower parts [of their bodies]. And since it was because of bullets, the injuries were associated with fractures in their ankles. They have received orthopedic treatment," Kuhestani said.

Kuhestani said officials from various government ministries visited the students in the hospital this morning.

In a statement, Afghan President Hamid Karzai expressed his condolences to the family of the dead student and called the incident "deplorable" and ordered an investigation into the actions of the police and into the living conditions of the students. He said the university is a place for learning, not for political tensions.

Karzai held a crisis meeting on the protests before leaving for a trip to the United States.

Students at Kabul University say they have no heat or electricity in their dormitories and that it is impossible to study or properly observe the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Most of the some 4,000 students who live in the dormitories are ethnic Pashtuns from outside the capital, especially Khost, Wardak, and Logar provinces.

Ahmad, 25, a Kabul University medical student, lives in the dormitories and participated in last night's march. Ahmad, who is from Wardak Province, spoke to RFE/RL today on the main road outside the university about his living conditions. A Kabul security official interrupted the interview, however, and hauled Ahmad away to a police van. "I myself am a student. I was in the dormitory last night. There has been no electricity and no water for four nights, and yesterday we could not get water from the water pumps outside of the dorm. And so the students faced lots of problems [yesterday] when it was dinnertime," Ahmad said.

Ahmad was detained for 30 minutes and released.

Another Kabul University student, who wished to remain anonymous, spoke to RFE/RL about what he witnessed during last night's clashes. "Yes, I took part in [last night's] incident as well. We wanted to raise our voice to the authorities and tell them we don't have electricity or food. But along the way in Dehmazang [District], the soldiers stopped us, though we told them not to do that. At last, as the students were going on their way ahead, first they fired into the air and then they opened fire on the students."

Kabul University students have staged a series of protests in recent months, but yesterday's demonstrations marked the first time such actions had taken place outside the campus or at night.

Din Mohammad Jurat is the director of public order for the Afghan Interior Ministry. He said the police fired into the air to break up the demonstration before the students could reach downtown Kabul. "[The police] were forced to fire into the air because, according to reports, [the students] wanted to go to the city to create a disturbance, especially to the currency markets. There were saboteurs among them. In order to arrest them and calm down the situation, [the police] fired into the air. Soon afterward, they were ordered to stop shooting," Jurat said.

Deputy Interior Minister General Helal told RFE/RL that it was a mistake for the students to move their protest outside of the university compound. He also said some of the students were shouting slogans in support of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. "Police have to prevent any kind of sedition or any action that causes tension. If this demonstration had good intentions, we would not have rejected it. We wanted them to stay in the university's compound and express their problems to governmental officials. But the students staged a protest during the night. In fact, it is hard to recognize people in the dark, as to whether they were students or someone else," Helal said.

Several soldiers from the International Security Assistance Force were near the scene of last night's protests. They monitored the events but say they were not called on to help Afghan police.

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    Grant Podelco

    Grant Podelco is the editor in chief of RFE/RL's English-language website. He first joined RFE/RL in Prague in 1995 as a senior correspondent after working for many years as a writer and editor for daily newspapers in New York, Oregon, and Texas. He reported from Afghanistan in November 2002 to mark the one-year anniversary of the fall of the Taliban.