Reuters International

By Hamid Shalizi

KABUL (Reuters) - Clashes broke out at a rally in Kabul on Thursday to celebrate a Tajik bandit who briefly reigned as king of Afghanistan almost a century ago, fuelling tensions that could threaten government stability.

The rally to rebury the remains of Habibullah Kalakani, a Tajik highwayman who ruled briefly in 1929, could exacerbate rivalry between ethnic groups and feed the instability that has dogged the unwieldy government of President Ashraf Ghani.

Organizers had intended to remove the remains from an unmarked grave to Shahrara, a scenic hilltop in the city. But clashes broke out after a standoff between the mainly Tajik demonstrators and armed supporters of Vice President Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, an Interior Ministry official said.

A vehicle convoy, with heavily armed men on dozens of pickup trucks bedecked with posters of the former king, forced other vehicles off the road as it pushed through the Kabul traffic, underlining the tensions surrounding the event.

Demonstrators said they were fired on after objections from Dostum's supporters that the proposed reburial site had connections with the Uzbek minority.

"Dostum's men fired first and did not allow us to carry out the burial," said Salem Wahdat, a member of the group that organised the rally.

Interior ministry officials said police were deployed to calm the situation, and negotiations were under way. At least three people were injured and local media reported that one person had been killed.

Hundreds of demonstrators took part in the rally, called after Ghani's government rejected requests to provide state honours for the remains of Kalakani, the lone Tajik exception in a long line of Pashtun monarchs.

The clash underlined the tense political mood in Kabul, where Ghani and his former rival, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, lead a government that has been bitterly divided since its creation after a disputed election in September 2014.

Abdullah's support is drawn heavily from among northern Tajiks, Afghanistan's second largest ethnic minority, who have been largely against Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun.

Known as Bacha-i Saqao, "the water carrier's son", Habibullah Kalakani, a Tajik army deserter from a village north of Kabul, seized power from the modernizing King Amanullah in 1929. Nine months later, after a short and brutal reign, he was executed when the old Pashtun dynasty returned to defeat him.

Demands for ceremonial recognition for the former king have grown for weeks, adding to fears of ethnic rivalries that have already been stoked by an unrelated campaign over electricity power lines by some members of the mainly Shia Hazara minority.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie and Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Nick Macfie and Mark Trevelyan)

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