Masked gunmen have abducted 30 Shia Muslim men who were traveling by bus through southern Afghanistan after returning from Iran, officials and a witness said on Tuesday.
The men, members of the minority Hazara ethnic group, were seized on Monday evening in Zabul province, on the road between Herat and the capital Kabul.
Hazara Shia Muslims are often the target of sectarian violence at the hands of Sunni Muslim extremists in Pakistan, though such attacks have been relatively rare in Afghanistan.
“Our driver saw a group of masked men in Afghan army uniform signaling him and he thought they were soldiers so he stopped,” said Nasir Ahmad, an official with the Ghazni Paima bus company. “The gunmen took 30 Hazaras away with them.”
Ahmad said the kidnappers took only the men on the two buses and not the women and children traveling with them. A female passenger, who asked not to be named, said they were returning from a trip to Iran when the men in uniform stopped the buses. “They were standing on the highway with their faces covered,” said the woman, whose relatives were among those kidnapped. “They only took Hazaras, including my cousins. After they took the people, the police arrived but they refused to go after the kidnappers, saying they needed orders from Kabul.”
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the abduction, but kidnappings for ransom by bandits, local militias and Taliban insurgents are common in Afghanistan. Interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said police were “doing everything to ensure their safe release.”
Nearly 200 Hazara Shias were killed in early 2013 in two major attacks in Quetta, capital of the Balochistan province that borders southern Afghanistan.
U.S.-led NATO forces ended their combat mission in Afghanistan in late December after more than a decade fighting the Taliban, having failed fully to quell their insurgency. Civilian casualties rose sharply last year as local forces took on the task of battling the militants, with 22 percent more killed or wounded in conflict than in 2013.
There have been fears recently that the influence of the Islamic State (I.S.) group, which has a strongly anti-Shia agenda, could be growing in Afghanistan. New U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Saturday Washington was seriously considering slowing the pace of its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan as the fight continues against the resilient Taliban insurgency. Under the current plan, the 10,000-strong U..S force is due to drop to about 5,500 by the end of 2015 and then pull out altogether by the time President Barack Obama leaves office in two years.
Afghan leaders and some lawmakers have urged Obama to reconsider the withdrawal timetable, warning that an early U.S. exit could jeopardize security and international aid. U.S. General John Campbell, the commander of the remaining NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the reassessment was taking into account the potential threat posed by I.S. in the country. Campbell told reporters that while I.S. had only a “nascent” presence in Afghanistan, the risk they pose was weighing on President Ashraf Ghani’s mind and U.S. forces were tracking it closely.