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Blast hits Kabul airport on return of exiled Afghan vice president

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By Reuters  with NBC News World News
Image: An injured security officer gets help as he lies on the ground after
An injured security officer gets help as he lies on the ground after an attack near the airport in Kabul on Sunday.   -   Copyright  Rahmat Gul

KABUL — Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum narrowly escaped a suspected suicide bomb attack at Kabul airport as he returned home on Sunday from more than a year in exile in Turkey over allegations of torturing and abusing a political rival.

Dostum, who left Afghanistan last year amid allegations of torture and abuse, had left the airport in a motorcade only minutes before the explosion, which officials said appeared to have been caused by a suicide bomber.

As many as 10 people were killed and wounded in the blast, said Interior Ministry spokesman Najib Danish.

Kabul police spokesman Hashmat Stanekzai said the blast went off near the main airport entrance, where supporters had been waiting to greet Dostum as his motorcade passed on its way to the city centre.

"The number of casualties may rise. The blast happened right after Dostum's convoy left the airport," he said.

Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek veteran of decades of Afghanistan's sometimes bloody politics, was unharmed and greeted cheering supporters at a rally in his office compound.

Much of the area around the presidential palace was shut down for the arrival and there was a heavy security presence on the streets, emphasizing the increasingly volatile political climate in Kabul.

Dostum faced outrage from Western donor countries including the United States after reports in 2016 that his guards had seized political rival Ahmad Eshchi and subjected him to beatings, torture and violent sexual abuse.

He denied Eshchi's accusations but left the country in May last year amid international demands that he be held accountable, ostensibly to seek medical treatment in Turkey, and has not returned since.

Once described by the U.S. State Department as a "quintessential warlord," Dostum has for years faced accusations of serious human rights abuses, including killing Taliban prisoners by leaving them in sealed cargo containers.

He joined President Ashraf Ghani in the disputed 2014 elections, helping to deliver support from the ethnic Uzbek community in northern Afghanistan and his return from exile comes ahead of the next presidential election in early 2019.

Dostum's return adds to an already volatile mix ahead of separate parliamentary elections in October that are seen as a dry run for the more important presidential elections next year.

Protestors calling for his return closed a number of voter registration offices and threatened to disrupt the parliamentary ballot, seen as a key test of Afghanistan's political stability.