Massive protest in Kabul over decapitation of Shiite Hazaras

Kabul (AFP) - Thousands of protesters marched coffins containing the decapitated bodies of seven Shiite Hazaras through the Afghan capital Wednesday, demanding justice for a minority whose persecution by the Taliban they say is ignored by the government.

Demonstrators gathered in west Kabul and walked through the rain bearing the coffins draped in green to the gates of the presidential palace, where organisers said they were planning to stage a sit-in until their demands were met by the government.

Their numbers dwindled to dozens after warning shots were fired in the air Wednesday afternoon, though many people remained in the streets further from the palace, according to an AFP photographer.

The protest was unusual for Afghanistan in its scale and organisation, and was mostly peaceful.

Demonstrators carried pictures of the victims, including two women and one child -- a girl, whose coffin was carried by grieving women.

The three million-strong Afghan Hazara community has been persecuted for decades, with thousands killed in the late 1990s by Al-Qaeda and the mainly Pashtun Sunni Taliban.

"This is a protest to demand justice for the victims who were so mercilessly murdered, we demand justice for people who are being brutally killed by terrorists every day," protester Mohammad Hadi told AFP.

"We want revenge, today they kill us, tomorrow they kill you," the protesters chanted.

Kabul's deputy police chief Sayed Gul Agha Rohani did not confirm who had fired the warning shots or why, and the defence ministry said the armed forces had not opened fire.

A health ministry spokesman said seven people were injured during the demonstration, adding that "some" of them had received bullet wounds. He gave no further details on the injuries.

Rohani had earlier said no one had been injured as a result of the warning shots.

- Persecuted minority -

The circumstances surrounding the beheadings remain unclear. The bodies of the seven victims, who are believed to have been held hostage by unknown gunmen for months, were found on Saturday in Zabul province, where fighting between rival Taliban groups has escalated over recent days.

In a national address Wednesday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called the killings "the shared pain of a nation", and accused the militants of trying to divide Afghanistan.

"All their destructive efforts are focused on creating gaps among the people," he said, adding that the government would not spare any effort in seeking "revenge".

Ghani received a delegation of the victims' families and a number of protesters in the evening, assuring them of his full support, but the fury on display during the protest demonstrated the level of mistrust he faces from the public on the issue.

"The people are asking why the government has been indifferent towards these crimes, people are demanding the resignation of the heads of the government because they have been inefficient and corrupt and never address the demands of the people," Jawad Sultani, a university lecturer at the protests said.

"Ashraf Ghani, we want answers," a woman protestor shouted through a loudspeaker.

The protest came as the United Nations followed the Afghan government and the US in condemning the killings, suggesting they may have been a war crime.

- Growing fury -

Some local officials have attributed the macabre killings to IS sympathisers, but the government does not have control of the area and the claims could not be verified.

Afghanistan's intelligence agency on Tuesday rejected the suggestion that IS affiliates were responsible, saying that the southern province has been the scene of deadly clashes between rival Taliban factions for days.

The protesters in Kabul chanted death slogans to the Taliban and IS.

There has been a surge in violence against the mostly-Shiite Hazara this year, with a series of kidnappings and killings that have triggered a wave of fury on social media.

On Tuesday, the Afghan spy agency said its forces had freed eight other Hazaras who had been held hostage for months, but offered no further details.