GHAZNI, AFGHANISTAN: Nineteen of 31 Shiite Muslims abducted in Afghanistan were released Monday in exchange for scores of Uzbek militants in government prisons, officials said, ending a two-month ordeal which marked a rare attack on ethnic minorities.
Masked gunmen seized the ethnic Hazaras from a bus in southern Zabul province in late February, with suspicions falling on militants aligned with the Islamic State group — an emerging threat in Afghanistan.
Government efforts to secure their release have been shrouded in mystery as the Taliban, waging a 13-year insurgency in Afghanistan, have distanced themselves from the incident.
“Nineteen Hazaras who were abducted in February were released today,” Zafar Sharif, a district governor in the restive southeastern province of Ghazni, told AFP, without elaborating.
Officials differed on the number of detainees released, and details on their allegiances were not immediately clear.
Asadullah Kakar, a member of Zabul’s provincial council, told AFP the Hazaras were freed “in exchange for 22 Uzbek militant fighters”.
“These Uzbek militant fighters were detained when they entered Afghan soil from the bordering North Waziristan tribal area of Pakistan,” he said.
But Hasan Reza Yousufi, a provincial council member in Ghazni, claimed “10 to 16 Taliban detainees from Chechnya and Uzbekistan” were part of the swap.
Hazara Muslims, the third-largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, 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.
The unusual abduction sent shockwaves through the community, evoking memories of the Taliban’s rule from 1996 to 2001, when minorities were heavily persecuted.
Family members of two of the 19 men told AFP they received calls from the government in Ghazni confirming their release and officials added that the remaining abductees would also be released imminently.
Afghan officials have been tight-lipped about their behind-the-scenes efforts to secure their release but President Ashraf Ghani in April said his government had spent $6 million on the military operations to free them.
He did not offer any more details on the nature of those operations.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the abduction in February, but kidnappings for ransom by bandits, local militias and Taliban insurgents are common in Afghanistan.
The kidnappings triggered speculation that the men had been seized by Afghan insurgents who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.
Militants last month conducted IS-style beheadings of five Shiites who were abducted in Ghazni province, highlighting a growing pattern of insurgent assaults on minorities.
Those ethnic Hazaras were kidnapped after they travelled out of their home district to shop for cattle.
Nearly 200 Hazara Shiites were killed in early 2013 in two major attacks in the Pakistani city of Quetta, capital of Baluchistan province which borders southern Afghanistan.