Afghan former warlord Hekmatyar rallies supporters in Kabul

KABUL (Reuters) - Thousands of supporters of Afghan former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar rallied in Kabul’s main football stadium on Friday, making a stark demonstration of force in the city his fighters helped destroy during civil war two decades ago.

(L-R) Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, former Jihadi leader Abdul Rabb Rasool Sayyaf and former Afghan vice president Karim Khalili attend a welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan May 4, 2017. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

A day after his return to the capital after years in hiding, Hekmatyar renewed his call for peace with the Taliban and stepped up his criticism of the national unity government headed by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.

“Let’s bring peace to the country first and tell the foreign forces that Afghans are able to sort out their issues themselves and we want them to leave Afghanistan,” he said. “No one has any justification for the presence of foreign troops.”

Days before the U.S. military is expected to ask Washington for thousands more troops to help train Afghan security forces and break a “stalemate” with the Taliban, the comments underline a potentially serious complication for Ghani’s fragile government.

Last year’s peace deal with Hekmatyar, a veteran of decades of war in Afghanistan accused of multiple human rights abuses, was intended as a possible precursor to an agreement to end the fighting with the Taliban, who have made steady gains since most foreign forces left Afghanistan just over two years ago.

But his arrival has also stirred fears that it could destabilize the unity government created under a deal brokered by former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry following a disputed presidential election of 2014.

Hekmatyar has repeatedly criticized the structure of the government, in which former rivals Ghani and Abdullah were each given a share of power after no clear winner emerged from an election in which each side was accused of vote fraud.

“This division of power is not God’s will, nor it is based on the constitution,” Hekmatyar said.

“This is John Kerry’s division. Do not look upon this division as sacred,” he said, to loud acclaim from the crowd.

The criticism underlines how divisions of the bloody civil war of the 1990s haunt Afghan politics, with numerous veterans of the conflict from all sides still playing leading roles.

Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami party draws support from Pashtuns, Afghanistan biggest ethnic group which has traditionally dominated politics.

But his arrival back has been seen less favorably by many in Kabul where thousands were killed by indiscriminate shelling during fighting between rival warlords.

The mainly ethnic Tajik Jamiat-i-Islami party behind Abdullah, a veteran of the old mujahideen Northern Alliance, as well other groups like the mainly Shia ethnic Hazaras and the ethnic Uzbek minorities of northern Afghanistan have watched his return with misgiving.

Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Robert Birsel