KANDAHAR: The Taliban said Friday they were not responsible for the abduction of 30 Shia Hazaras in southern Afghanistan last week, as rescue efforts restarted after a halt for bad weather.
Masked gunmen had stopped two buses on the road to Kabul from the western city of Herat on February 24 and took 30 male passengers hostage, all of them members of the Hazara minority ethnic group.
No one has claimed responsibility for the abduction, but kidnappings for ransom by bandits and militias are common in Afghanistan.
The Taliban on Friday issued a statement distancing themselves from the incident.
“We consider it necessary to announce to our countrymen that this kidnapping is not linked to our mujahideen, and we are not involved in it,” Taliban spokesperson Qari Yousuf Ahmadi said in the email statement.
Islam Gul Siyaal, spokesperson for the governor of Zabul province, where the incident took place, said authorities were still trying to pinpoint where the hostages were being held.
He said talks had started with local elders to ensure the “safe release” of the hostages.
“For now, we can say, the abducted passengers are still alive,” says Siyaal.
Locals in the area say US unmanned drone aircraft have been patrolling in the area for the last two days.
Bad weather forced search and rescue efforts to be suspended, but Siyaal and Zabul deputy police chief Ghulam Jelani Farahi said conditions had improved.
“Security forces are in the area, and we will restart our rescue operation,” Farahi said.
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.
Nearly 200 Hazara Shia were killed in early 2013 in two major attacks in the Pakistani city of Quetta, capital of Balochistan province which borders southern Afghanistan.
US-led NATO forces ended their combat mission in Afghanistan in late December after more than a decade fighting the Taliban, having failed to fully quell their insurgency.