Armed gunmen have killed at least 15 civilians in central Afghanistan in what is being termed a sectarian attack.
The majority of those killed on Friday, including three women and one child, were reported to be from the nation's Shia minority.
In statements to the media, local officials said that unknown gunmen stopped two minibuses, with more than 30 passengers on board, as they were traveling to La'l wa Sarjangal district of Ghor province.
Sayed Anwar Rahmati, provincial governor, said the passengers were taken outside and told to stand in a line after their tazkirah, or national IDs, were checked. Among those killed were four members of a single family, a groom, his bride, and her two sisters — and a Kabul University student. With 14 of the dead belonging to the predominantly Shia Hazara ethnicity, local and international media have labeled the killings sectarian.
Though common in neighboring Pakistan — where Lashkar-e Jhangvi (LeJ), an armed Pakistani Sunni group, has killed hundreds of Shia in a spree of targeted killings over the last decade — such sectarian attacks are much less common in Afghanistan. In fact, LeJ claimed responsibility for the last major sectarian attack in Afghanistan. The 2011 attack — the first large scale sectarian attack in the nation — saw dozens of worshippers in Kabul killed in a suicide bombing targeting processions for the Shia holiday of Ashura. The Afghan Taliban had condemned that attack for leaving "defenseless countrymen… soaked in their blood and their families left in utter grief."
Traditionally, in attacks where passengers are pulled aside and singled out, the gunmen are said to be looking for those with connections to the national government, rather than targeting a specific group. With the Hazara majority district of La'l wa Sarjangal considered one of the most peaceful in a province otherwise overrun with illegal armed groups, sources speaking to VICE News said a sectarian attack would be particularly out of place. Despite its location in the heart of the country, Ghor has often been seen as an area mostly forgotten by the Kabul government. The province's 635,000 inhabitants have to contend with the presence of more than 130 illegal armed groups, an 18.5 percent literacy rate, and a 65 percent jobless rate. However, sectarian divisions have rarely been an issue in the predominantly Tajik province. Muhammad Hassan Hakimi, a Ghor-based journalist, told VICE News that though armed groups and strongmen worked to divide the province physically, that is more an issue of power than ethnicityor religion.
Obaid Ali, a Kabul-based analyst who has written extensively on Ghor, agrees. Speaking to VICE News, Ali said he would be particularly surprised to see residents of La'l wa Sarjangal being targeted. "It's a very safe district, the quality of education much higher than the rest of the province. You almost forget you're in Ghor when you're there," Ali said.
Though members of illegal armed groups outnumber Afghan National Police forces five to one in Ghor, local and Kabul-based government officials have blamed the Taliban for the slayings. Provincial government sources speaking to VICE News said all evidence gathered so far pointed to Taliban involvement. Initially, they would not elaborate on the nature of the evidence, but did warn against publishing the ethnicities of the dead for fear of riling up ethnic conflicts.
By Saturday afternoon, provincial officials said the gunmen belonged to an 2,000-strong illegally armed group led by Qari Rahmatullah and Mullah Farooq, former Taliban commanders released from prison as part of government-led reconciliation efforts with the armed opposition.
The Taliban, however continue to deny responsibility.
In a statement to the Reuters news agency, Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said the group "strongly condemns the killings and will try to find and punish the perpetrators."
Despite their denials, some Afghans feel that given their history of hostility toward Shia people, the Taliban could very likely have had a hand in Friday's killings.
The most egregious example of Taliban targeting of Shia occurred during what has come to be known as the Yakawlang Massacre.
For four days in early January 2001, the Taliban were accused of carrying out public killings of more than 170 men in Yakawlang district of Bamyan province.
Hamid Karzai has dispatched a fact-finding mission to the central province and allocated 1.4 million Afghanis ($25,000) to families of the victims.
Hakimi said whoever was responsible, the actual plot was orchestrated by non-Afghans.
"No Afghan would do this. Even if the Afghan Taliban are behind it, the thoughts came from Pakistan, these sorts of things don't happen in Afghanistan," Hakimi told VICE News.
Abdul Ghafoor, who spent 23 years in Pakistan, expresses a cautious hopefulness that such incidents cannot lead to the level of sectarian conflicts he witnessed as a refugee in Pakistan.
With few remaining armed Hazara groups to take up the fight against any future sectarian attacks, Ghafoor doubts such attacks can incite true sectarian conflict in the nation.
Still, the 28-year-old believes such incidents must be brought to the people's attention.
"These sorts of killings are relatively new here, but having witnessed the killings in Quetta, it is important to make the Afghan people aware of what is going on before it grows worse."
Follow Ali Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye
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