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Afghan government rocked by Kandahar fistfight

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is struggling to placate furious tribal elders in Kandahar, who include some of the most powerful figures in the strategic southern province, after one of his top aides punched a senior local leader in the face.

Ghani visited Kandahar, the provincial capital and Afghanistan’s second biggest city, on Thursday on a trip intended to bolster support for his national unity government in one of the most volatile regions of the country.

Instead, he found himself embroiled in an embarrassing debacle during an event with tribal elders when a fight broke out between Naseem Sharifi, his head of protocol, and Haji Sayed Jan Khakrezwal, the respected head of the Kandahar provincial council.

Witnesses and reporters looked on in shock as a heated exchange culminating in a deeply offensive obscenity broke out between the two men, who had a longstanding feud, ending when Sharifi struck Khakrezwal in the face.

Ghani immediately sacked Sharifi and said in a statement he was “deeply saddened” by the incident. He said the dignity and pride of the Kandahar elders was as valuable to him as his own.

However, the incident has left deep resentment among the Kandahar tribal leaders, whose support in one of the country’s most strategically important cities is vital to Ghani’s struggling government.

“Sacking his chief of protocol is not enough,” said Naqibullah Hakimi, an influential elder from the Popalzai tribe, one of the biggest and most powerful of the Pashtun tribes of southern Afghanistan. “He has to be prosecuted and jailed for this kind of insult and disrespect.”

He said that only the fact that Ghani himself had been at the meeting had prevented immediate bloodshed.

Kandahar, a largely rural and tribal province on the border with Pakistan, is a heartland of the Taliban that NATO troops fought for years to control.

Without the backing of the tribal elders, Ghani’s government, already under strain because of the worsening security situation, would struggle to retain its authority in the south where the Taliban has made increasing inroads.

Haji Nimatullah Sherdelai, from the Noorzai tribe, said the insult to Khakrezwal would make it difficult to continue to support the government.

“Our people are already very upset and telling us to cut off from the government,” he said. “Looking at the all shortcomings of the government and on top of all the other difficulties, this happens. Our tribe’s members are already distancing themselves.”

Reporting by Sayed Sarwar Amani, Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Dominic Evans