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Funeral For Controversial Former Afghan King Sparks Violence

Supporters of Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum carry a wounded colleague during clashes at the reburial of Habibullah Kalakani, a controversial Afghan monarch who died in 1929.

The belated funeral ceremony for a controversial former Afghan monarch turned violent in Kabul on September 1, with at least one person killed and several wounded after gunshots were fired during a procession attended by thousands of members of Afghanistan's ethnic Tajik minority.

Mourners carrying the purported remains of King Habibullah Kalakani -- an ethnic Tajik who ruled Afghanistan for nine months in 1929 -- and those of more than a dozen of his companions were confronted by armed militiamen as they made their way to inter the remains at a new burial site.

Witnesses blamed the ensuing violence, in which at least five people were injured, on militiamen affiliated with First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former ethnic Uzbek militia leader. The witnesses told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the militiamen fired on the mourners as they headed to the new burial site on Kabul's Shahrara Hill after attending a funeral ceremony at the city's Jami mosque.

The militiamen are alleged to have warned the mourners, some of whom were armed, that they could not bury the remains on Shahrara Hill, which is revered by Afghanistan's Turkic-speaking minority. After heated exchanges, the eye-witnesses said, gunshots were fired at the crowd.

Historical Tensions

The clashes have thrown the deep historical tensions between Afghanistan's long-warring ethnic groups into relief. A catastrophic civil war fought along ethnic lines in the 1990s claimed tens of thousands of lives.

For almost a century, the remains of Kalakani and 16 of his companions were kept in an unmarked grave below a hilltop mausoleum of the country's ethnic Pashtun dynasty. His supporters want to rebury him in a more respected location.

Social media posts showed images of the aftermath of the violence, with some videos and photographs claiming to show young men being dragged away from the scene of the clashes.

Armed men, raising assault rifles in the air, were also pictured, as were apparently injured supporters of King Kalakani.

Afghan security officials said police were deployed to calm the situation and negotiations were under way.

"The hill is part of the history of the Uzbeks and burying Kalakani at the hilltop will erase that history," said Kanishka Turkistani, a spokesman for Dostum.

The ceremony was attended by some prominent ethnic Tajiks, including former intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh.

Supporters carry coffins containing the remains of King Habibullah Kalakani and his companions during the reburIal ceremony for the late monarch in Kabul on September 1.
Supporters carry coffins containing the remains of King Habibullah Kalakani and his companions during the reburIal ceremony for the late monarch in Kabul on September 1.

Kalakani -- the only ethnic Tajik monarch to have ruled Afghanistan in the kingdom's 226-year run from 1747 to 1973 -- is a controversial figure.

In 1928-29, forces loyal to Kalakani took advantage of the absence of royal troops from the capital to overthrow the reformist king, Amanullah Khan, who is widely regarded as a national hero for his successful war against Britain and his efforts to modernize Afghanistan.

'Bandit King'

Kalakani's reign was brief, as he was executed along with his close companions after being deposed less than a year later. Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group, have historically dominated the leadership of the Afghan state.

Among some Afghans, Kalakani is derided as a "bandit king" whose revolt against Amanullah Khan harmed Afghanistan's modernization efforts. Others, however, see Kalakani as an important figure who broke the Pashtun stranglehold on power.

Observers have drawn parallels with the current struggle for power between President Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun, and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who has widespread support among the country's ethnic Tajik community . They fought a bitter election battle in 2014 and share power in what critics regard as an unwieldy national unity government.

Prior to the ceremony on September 1 a movement had emerged demanding that the government organize an official state burial and gravesite for Kalakani.

The pro-Kalakani movement, whose strength is difficult to gauge but which is supported by some prominent ethnic Tajik lawmakers and former militia commanders, had threatened street protests in Kabul if its demands were not met.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan
NOTE: This article has been amended. Atta Mohammad Noor, the ethnic Tajik governor of Balkh Province, did not attend the reburial ceremony as was originally stated.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is acting editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.