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Afghan horsemen compete during a Buzkashi game in Panjshir province, north of Kabul, Afghanistan April 7, 2017. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

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PANJSHIR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A crash of horses and men deep in a mountain pass signals the start of another game of buzkashi, Afghanistan's national sport.

Buzkashi, which translates roughly as "goat pulling," has been played for centuries across Central Asia and is one of the most enduring and iconic symbols of Afghanistan.

It is a sport which is often violent, but designed to showcase the riders' horsemanship and warrior spirit.

Amid foreign invasions, civil wars, and insurgent attacks, Afghans have gathered to cheer on their favourite "chapandaz," as the riders are known.

On Friday, a typical community match played out under the soaring, snow-capped peaks that surround the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul.

Rusting hulks of Russian-made tanks and guns litter the Panjshir, testifying to the years of war when famed guerrilla commander Ahmad Shah Massoud used the mountains to hold off first the Soviets, then the Taliban.

"It’s been almost fifty to sixty years that buzkashi matches have been happening on this site," said Abdul Anaan, a spectator.

"I myself was a horseman and usually played buzkashi, and today many youth are interested in this game and playing it."

The game typically involves riders on horses wrestling over half of a calf carcass, which is usually able to withstand the pounding better than goats.

Matches may involve individual players competing, or teams, often owned or sponsored by powerful warlords or other leaders.

In both cases, the goal is to carry the carcass and drop it on a target on the ground, all while dozens of other riders and horses grab, hit, kick, and struggle to tear the carcass away.

"If we fall down on the ground or get hurt it doesn't mean that we are angry with each other," said horseman Mohammed Hafiz. "This is just the rule of the game."

Horses and riders regularly career into the crowds on the sidelines, sending spectators scrambling out of the way.

Occasionally a rider would escape the crush with a bleeding gash to their head or hands, only to wrap it up and return to the game.

Buzkashi matches can attract thousands of spectators and even some times make news, as was the case when Afghanistan's First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum was accused of ordering his men to assault and abduct a political rival on the sidelines of a buzkashi game late last year.

For fans, however, the game's significance will outlast the country's current politics, just as it has outlasted previous wars.

"This sport is for the entertainment of our village, our people and our country," said Anaan.

(Reporting by Samar Zwak; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Michael Perry)

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