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MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Hundreds of demonstrators in northern cities in Afghanistan continued protests on Tuesday, demanding the return of exiled vice President Abdul Rasheed Dostum in a challenge to President Ashraf Ghani ahead of parliamentary elections in October.
Rallies in northern provinces went into their seventh day following the arrest last week of a militia commander loyal to Dostum, currently exiled in Turkey after being accused of torturing and sexually assaulting a political opponent.
Protesters tore down pictures of Ghani and threatened to cut highways and power lines bringing electricity from neighbouring Uzbekistan to the capital Kabul if local police commander Nizamuddin Qaisari was not released.
The protests underlined how volatile the political situation in Afghanistan has become ahead of the elections, even as hopes have been raised of possible talks with the Taliban following a three-day ceasefire during last month's Eid festival.
As well as members of his Junbish-i milli Islami party, Dostum has won the support of Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful former governor of Balkh province Mohammad Mohaqiq, a leader of the mainly Shi'ite Hazara minority.
Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek leader once described as a "quintessential warlord" by the U.S. State Department who has survived decades of Afghanistan's turbulent politics, was included in Ghani's national unity government despite longstanding accusations of severe human rights abuses.
However he sparked international outrage after reports emerged that he had ordered guards to seize and beat political rival Ahmad Ischi and he has not returned since leaving Afghanistan for medical treatment Turkey last year.
Since then there has been speculation that he may return to Afghanistan, which has seen increasing divisions between a patchwork of ethnic groups, including Pashtuns, predominantly from the south and east and Persian-speaking Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen from the north and west.
Many non-Pashtuns have been increasingly hostile to Ghani, a Pashtun like almost all rulers of modern Afghanistan, whom they accuse of favouring his own ethnic supporters.
(Reporting by Matin Sahak; writing by James Mackenzie; editing by Richard Balmforth)