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Defaced Dostum Billboards Nearly Ruin New Year's In Mazar-e Sharif

Supporters of Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum rally in Mazar-e Sharif.

The new year got off to a rocky start in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif when someone tore down towering images of a controversial former warlord and current government official.

On the eve of Norouz, the Persian new year that was celebrated on March 20, many of the billboards featuring Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum that lined city streets were defaced or ripped down altogether.

In the aftermath, officials in the capital of Balkh Province had to scramble to avoid a confrontation by condemning the damage done to the billboards and ordering them to be replaced.

Within hours after the billboards were damaged, Dostum rival Atta Mohammad Noor, himself a former warlord and the current acting Balkh governor, had posted a lengthy message on his Facebook account, blaming them on people who sought to create chaos in Balkh.

In the message -- titled "urgent" -- the governor warned against possible riots and disruption.

Security forces managed to block roads and prevent hundreds of men from entering Mazar-e Sharif on March 21 as Norouz celebrations were under way.

But the next day hundreds of angry Dostum supporters took to the streets, accusing the local government of not taking measures to find and punish the culprits, while others believed to be supporters of Noor rallied in an effort to counter Dostum's supporters.

The ethnic Uzbek Dostum enjoys huge influence in Afghanistan's northwest, where he has been leading a military offensive. But while he and Noor recently formed an unlikely alliance to combat the Taliban, Noor's Jamiat-e-Islami party and Dostum's Junbish-e Milliparty have a history of past hostilities.

Dostum has not publicly commented on the vandalism or on those protesting on his behalf, but his party said they were peaceful protesters who were seeking an explanation for the removal of the portraits.

Authorities, meanwhile, dismissed allegations of a "counter-rally," saying Noor supporters had in fact gathered to show solidarity with pro-Dostum rally.

After several hours of marching and chanting, protesters left and officials said calm and Dostum's new portraits had returned to the city.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.