Clashes between Taliban and Shia minority raise fears of Afghan sectarian war

GHAZNI, Afghanistan (Reuters) - The Taliban have infiltrated a strategic district in southeastern Afghanistan and fought with members of the Shi’ite Hazara minority, officials said on Thursday, a week after militants and a Shi’ite militia clashed in a central province.

Insurgents raided the Jaghori district in Ghazni province on Wednesday, aiming to regain control of a Shi’ite-dominated region that allows women to move freely and encourages higher female participation in government.

The attacks on Jaghori by the Taliban, a militant group made up mainly of ethnic Pashtun Sunni Muslims, have heightened fears of a new surge of sectarian violence in Afghanistan.

The violence has also highlighted concerns that Hazaras, members of a mainly Shi’ite minority, may take up arms in frustration at a lack action by the central government.

Abdul Qayum Sajjadi, a lawmaker in Ghazni province, said President Ashraf Ghani’s Western-backed government was negligent.

“I repeatedly urged the central government to send backup forces to Jaghori, but security departments were slow in sending reinforcements. The residents are forced to fight the battle,” he said on Thursday.

A senior interior ministry official said at least six policemen were killed and dozens of civilians and militia members were wounded in clashes with the Taliban that began on Wednesday.

Presidential spokesman Shah Hussain Murtazavi said that helicopters had been deployed to Jaghori to fight the militants.

“Jaghori will become the burial site of the Taliban,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Government officials said Jaghori appeared to be part of a Taliban network used for evacuating their injured fighters from central provinces, as well as tax and extortion activities across provinces.

The fighting marks the end of a deal made between Jaghori’s village elders and the Taliban made a decade ago.

Under the agreement, the Taliban allowed girls to attend schools and colleges, and women to drive vehicles in the district.

In return, the local militias did not oppose the limited Taliban control in the district.

The Taliban said on Thursday the attacks would continue in Jaghori and other parts of the country controlled by the government.

“These attacks are not against any ethnicity or any group or religion,” Zabiullah Mujahideen, a Taliban spokesman, said in a statement.

“Our countrymen in Jaghori, especially our countrymen from Hazara ethnicity and Shia, have to be careful about the conspiracy of a few corrupt puppets of the U.S. sitting in Kabul,” he said.

Additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Hamid Shalizi, Writing by Rupam Jain, Editing by Darren Schuettler