Afghan authorities will investigate violent clashes that left at least five people dead during an anti-government protest over this week’s devastating truck bomb attack in Kabul, the deputy interior minister said on Saturday. The rally on Friday saw hours of angry confrontation between stone-throwing protesters and police, who fired into the air to drive back crowds trying to cross security cordons and reach the presidential palace.
Streets in the centre of the Afghan capital were closed on Saturday as authorities tried to prevent a repeat of the violence, which has heaped pressure on President Ashraf Ghani’s government over its inability to ensure security in Kabul. The demonstration followed the explosion of a huge truck bomb on Wednesday that killed more than 80 people and wounded 460 – one of the deadliest attacks seen in Kabul since the U.S.-led campaign that toppled the Islamist Taliban in 2001.
Deputy Interior Minister Murad Ali Murad said the attorney general would investigate allegations of violence by police as well as by demonstrators, some of whom appeared to be armed. It would be up to the investigation to determine whether any mistakes had been made by security forces. Murad updated the death toll from the demonstration to five and said 23 were wounded, mostly members of the security forces.
Intelligence officials blamed the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network, an Islamist militant group that has been linked to several similar attacks in the past. The violence further complicated the situation confronting U.S. and coalition officials as they work on plans expected to see an increase of between 3,000 and 5,000 in the number of foreign troops in Afghanistan.
As well as stoking anger against the government, the protests also sharpened long-running tensions between rival political and ethnic groups and drew accusations that armed infiltrators had joined the protest to stir up trouble. “While peaceful demonstrations are welcome in a democracy, some narrow political elements used this opportunity to spark violence, resulting in more death and suffering,” the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said in a statement.
With much of the capital locked down by security forces, a group of around 200 protesters remained near the blast site in the centre of town, sheltering from the sun in open tents. Otherwise, security authorities in Kabul told people not to attend protests and demonstrations, citing the risk of attacks on large gatherings of people.
While unusually large, Wednesday’s truck bomb scarcely differed from a long series of previous high-profile militant attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians in Afghanistan since most international forces left the country in 2014. In the first three months of the year at least 715 civilians were killed across the country, after almost 3,500 in 2016, the deadliest year on record for Afghan civilians.