KANDAHAR (Reuters) - Afghan security forces have killed dozens of militants in a military operation aimed at freeing a group of civilian hostages in southern Afghanistan, an army official said on Wednesday.
Masked gunmen kidnapped around 30 passengers from two buses in the southern province of Zabul last week while they were traveling late at night to the capital, Kabul.
Eyewitnesses said most passengers belonged to the ethnic Hazara minority, a group that was persecuted by the Taliban during their hard-line rule in the late 1990s.
A team of Afghan army, police and intelligence agents had identified several locations where the civilians were being held, but had yet to free any hostages.
“The rescue operation is ongoing,” General Abdul Hameed, commander of the 205th Afghan army corps operating in the south of the country, told Reuters. “We have killed 48 insurgents and 21 of them are foreign fighters.”
He identified some militants as local Taliban, but did not indicate the nationalities of the foreign fighters.
Hazaras, who largely follow the Shi’ite sect of Islam, were persecuted under the Taliban’s Sunni Islamist rule, but outbreaks of sectarian violence have been rare since the Taliban were driven from power by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
The hostages were forced to get out of the Kabul-bound buses on February 23 after producing documents showing they belonged to the Shi’ite group, according to one of the bus company’s managers.
The Taliban have not claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Writing by Krista Mahr; Editing by Tom Heneghan