Gunfight erupts in north Afghan city over police chief's appointment

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A gunbattle erupted on Thursday between Afghan forces and supporters of a powerful politician in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif who rejected the appointment of a new provincial police chief by President Ashraf Ghani, officials said.

At least five civilians and two security force personnel were wounded in the clash, the latest in a series of stand-offs between Ghani and Atta Mohammad Noor, who built up unrivalled power as governor of Balkh province for more than a decade.

Noor is a leading figure in Jamiat-e Islami, a party that represents Afghanistan’s Tajik minority. A former commander in the anti-Soviet Mujahiddin and considered one of the richest men in Afghanistan, he has faced repeated accusations of corruption, which he denies.

He has continued to defy Ghani’s attempts to retain control over his northern stronghold since stepping aside last year in a deal that allowed him to choose the new provincial police chief.

Several officials in Balkh appointed by Ghani have complained at being blocked from taking up their posts by the refusal of local authorities to recognize their appointments.

Noor has accused Ghani of trying to remove a potential rival and divide Jamiat by appointing his supporters to powerful posts to manipulate the presidential election in July.

The stand-off underlines how far the president’s authority has been challenged. Last month, a governor of the northern province of Samangan defied an attempt by Ghani to remove him.

In a statement online, Noor called on residents to keep shops and markets closed. He said Ghani must withdraw the appointment of Abdul Raqib Mobarez as the province’s new police chief.

He also rejected the appointment of Abdul Latif Sahak’s as head of the agency running the trade post of Hairatan, the border crossing into Uzbekistan that controls a significant slice of Afghanistan’s foreign trade.

Noor called him a “thief and a smuggler”. Sahak dismissed his accusations as “baseless” and said he had been appointed after a competitive process by government ministries.

Although no longer in office, he continues to wield enormous influence in the province and he called on supporters to resist Kabul’s influence in local affairs.

“The presidential palace has always been plotting conspiracies with its arbitrary policies. I ask all residents, men and women, of Balkh to be fully ready for defending their dignity,” said Noor.

Balkh, which sits on vital trade routes into central Asia, is also one of Afghanistan’s most stable and prosperous provinces, with a much smaller Taliban and Islamic State presence than in other northern regions.

A senior official at the presidential palace said Ghani’s decision to appoint a new police chief in Balkh was “free from bias”.

Additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Writing by Rupam Jain, Editing by Nick Macfie and Alison Williams