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Afghanistan's capital was under lockdown Monday as thousands of minority Shiite Hazaras launched protests over a multi-million-dollar power transmission line, in what could snowball into a political crisis for the beleaguered government.

Security forces blocked key intersections with stacked-up shipping containers in Kabul as the protesters sought to march on the presidential palace, demanding that the electricity line linking energy-rich central Asia pass through a central Hazara-dominated area.

The protest spotlights the turbulent politics in the war-torn nation and follows a massive rally last November galvanised by the beheadings of a group of Hazaras, which symbolised growing public discontent with President Ashraf Ghani's regime.



"Tens of thousands of people are expected to join the massive protest and march towards the presidential palace," Hazara lawmaker Arif Rahmani told AFP.

"We want the power line to cross through Bamiyan, which has seen no development in 15 years. We are demanding justice, not charity."

The 500 kilovolt TUTAP power line, which would connect the Central Asian nations of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan with Afghanistan and Pakistan, is regarded a crucial infrastructure project in the electricity-starved region.



But it has been mired in controversy, with leaders from the minority group demanding that the line be routed through Bamiyan, which has a large Hazara population.

The line was originally set to pass through the central province but the government decided to reroute it through the mountainous Salang pass north of Kabul, saying the shorter route would expedite the project and save millions of dollars in costs.

Hazara leaders in the ethnically divisive nation lashed out at the Pashtun president, saying the decision to reroute the line was a sign of the government's discriminatory policies.

- Potential for violence -

The rally, so far peaceful, comes in the midst of the Taliban's annual spring offensive launched last month and authorities have warned that it could be targeted by insurgents.

"Staging peaceful protests is the civil right of every Afghan citizen," the interior ministry said in a statement.

"We respectfully request that our countrymen not allow the enemy (to) misuse this opportunity and disrupt public security."

The dispute, which highlights the challenges of modernising the war-torn country, threatens to overshadow TUTAP, which could help ease nationwide power blackouts.

Hazara protesters repeatedly heckled Ghani during an anti-corruption summit in London last week.

The president faces rising unpopularity amid endemic corruption, rampant unemployment and growing insecurity in Afghanistan.

The three million-strong Afghan Hazara community has been persecuted for decades, with thousands killed in the late 1990s by Al-Qaeda and the mainly Pashtun Sunni Taliban.

There has been a surge in violence against the community, with a series of kidnappings and killings in recent months that have triggered a wave of fury on social media.

In November, thousands of protesters marched coffins containing the decapitated bodies of seven Shiite Hazaras through the Afghan capital.

Their bodies were found in southern Zabul province, which is under Taliban control and has been the scene of clashes between rival militant factions.

Ghani called the killings "the shared pain of a nation", and accused the militants of trying to divide Afghanistan.