Reuters International

Protest organizers from Hazara community attend a gathering a day before a planned demonstration in Kabul, Afghanistan May 15, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

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By James Mackenzie and Mirwais Harooni

KABUL (Reuters) - Thousands of members of Afghanistan's Hazara minority are expected to join protests in Kabul on Monday over a multi-million-dollar power line development that risks becoming a major political battleground for the government.

The planned demonstration follows one of the largest rallies in Kabul in years last November over the murder of a group of Hazara, which focused widespread public discontent with the government.

The line between Turkmenistan and Kabul is intended to provide electricity for up to 10 million people in 10 provinces including Kabul from 2018, but a dispute has broken out over what route it should follow.

Hazara leaders, including second vice President Mohammad Sarwar Danish and Mohammad Mohaqiq, deputy to government Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, want the line to be routed through two provinces with large Hazara populations.

President Ashraf Ghani's government says that option would cause years of delay and add millions in extra costs for little additional benefit.

With only 30 percent of Afghanistan connected to electricity and blackouts a regular problem, strengthening the power system has been a top priority as the government tries to rebuild an economy shattered by decades of war.

But the dispute threatens to overshadow the project, part of the TUTAP plan backed by the Asian Development Bank to link the energy-rich Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The latest version of the plan would see the line bring electricity from Turkmenistan via a converter station in the northern town of Pul-e-Khumri to Kabul through the mountainous Salang pass north of the Afghan capital.

Hazara leaders want to stick with an earlier version that foresaw a longer route from Pul-e-Khumri through the Bamyan and Wardak provinces, west of Kabul.

The government and national power company Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS) say the current plan ensures robust supplies to Bamyan and Wardak and changing it would delay the project by up to three years.

"The issue is now purely political," said Mirwais Alami, acting chief executive of DABS. He said protest leaders were disregarding technical and economic arguments against changing the planned route.

Hazara protesters heckled Ghani during a visit to London last week and on Sunday, hundreds demonstrated in Ghazni, a city with a big Hazara population, chanting "TUTAP must pass through Bamyan".

The mainly Shia Hazara have long faced persecution with thousands massacred by the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the 1990s. More recently, they have been regular targets for kidnapping and murders.

The government, wary of further turbulence, has tried to reassure protesters, saying representatives would be invited to join a commission considering the decision.

"This is a technical issue, but given that there are protests and dissatisfaction, these must be reviewed," Ghani's deputy spokesman Zafar Hashimi said.

(Additional reporting Mustafa Andalib in Ghazni; editing by John Stonestreet)

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