KABUL (Reuters) - Unknown gunmen on Tuesday briefly seized more than 60 Afghan workers clearing Soviet-era anti-tank mines in western Herat province, the largest mass kidnapping undertaken in an economically important area now beset by security problems.
All the deminers were released within hours of being taken away following negotiations between local elders and the kidnappers, Farid Homayoun, country director of the Halo Trust demining company, told Reuters.
Herat, which borders Iran, has long been plagued by kidnappings. But a sharp downturn in security in the traditionally safe province would be a worrying sign ahead of the departure of most foreign forces by the end of this year.
The workers arrived in the morning at a village in Pashtun Zarghun district to begin clearing anti-tank mines dating from the 10-year Soviet occupation of the 1980s. They were forced to drive to a second village and marched off towards nearby mountains.
No one claimed responsibility for the incident.
A small group of deminers was held for a week by Taliban fighters in more volatile southern Kandahar district in April last year before being released.
In Herat, a commercial hub, kidnappers have generally targeted rich business people or their families, with residents staging strikes and protests to draw attention to the issue.
Bombings and insurgent attacks had been infrequent in Herat until recently, but security has deteriorated sharply in recent months. Residents told Reuters it had become dangerous to travel through districts bordering the provinces of Farah and Baghdis.
Additional reporting by Jessica Donati and Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Dylan Welch; Editing by Ron Popeski