Reuters International

By Mirwais Harooni

KABUL (Reuters) - Thousands of people from Afghanistan's Hazara minority demonstrated in the capital Kabul on Saturday to demand changes to the route of a planned multi-million dollar power transmission line.

The demonstrators are demanding that the 500 kV transmission line from Turkmenistan to Kabul be rerouted through two provinces with large Hazara populations, an option the government says would cost millions and delay the badly needed project by years.

Waving Afghan flags and chanting slogans like "Justice! Justice!" and "Death to discrimination!", demonstrators gathered near Kabul University, several kilometres from the main government area, which police sealed off.

Security was tight and helicopters patrolled overhead but there was no sign of trouble as the protest began.

The transmission line, intended to provide secure electricity to 10 provinces is part of a project backed by the Asia Development Bank aimed at linking energy-rich states of Central Asia with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Hazaras say they want the transmission line to come through their area because that would ensure their power supply.

The government says the project already guarantees ample power to the provinces of Bamyan and Wardak, west of Kabul, where many Hazaras live, and denies accusations that it disadvantages Hazara people, a mainly Shia minority.

Under current plans, due to be implemented by 2018, the line will pass from a converter station in the northern town of Pul-e Khumri to Kabul through the mountainous Salang pass.

An earlier version of the plan foresaw a longer route from Pul-e Khumri through Bamyan and Wardak, but this option was subsequently dropped.

The Persian-speaking Hazara, estimated to make up about 9 percent of the population, are Afghanistan's third largest minority but they have long suffered discrimination. Thousands were killed during Taliban rule.

However, they are politically well organised and several of their leaders are part of President Ashraf Ghani's delicately balanced national unity government, which has added to the sensitivity surrounding the protests.

"We will not allow them to enjoy their time in palaces while those who voted for them stay in darkness," said demonstrator Mohammad Ali, 34.

Saturday's demonstration follows a protest in May, after which Ghani promised a committee of inquiry into the case. That committee however recommended sticking with the route through the Salang pass.

Strengthening and expanding Afghanistan's creaking power network is among the government's top development priorities as currently only 30 percent of the country is connected to the electricity system.

(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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