Gunmen carry out second kidnapping in Afghanistan in three weeks

KABUL (Reuters) - Gunmen kidnapped eight ethnic Hazara people from two cars in eastern Afghanistan on Sunday but later released all but one of the hostages, a local official said.

It was the second kidnapping involving members of the Hazara community in less than a month, stoking fears of sectarian violence in this war-weary nation.

The passengers were riding in two vehicles in eastern Ghazni province when the gunmen stopped them, said Shafiq Nang Safi, a spokesman for the provincial governor.

Safi said the identity of the assailants and the remaining hostage were unknown.

Another 30 Hazaras are still missing after masked gunmen forced them off two buses in the southern province of Zabul in late February.

Hazaras, who largely follow the Shi’ite sect of Islam, were persecuted under the Taliban’s Sunni Islamist rule, but sectarian violence has been rare since the group was ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Afghan security forces have launched an operation to free the Zabul hostages, but have yet to locate them, despite having killed dozens of militants in the operation, including several fighters identified as foreign nationals.

“We haven’t found any clue of those people kidnapped by the enemies of Afghanistan,” said Mohsen Sultani, spokesman for the 205th Afghan army corps, which operates in the south of the country.

“The operation is going forward well and we have many good achievements,” he said.

The Taliban has denied any involvement in the Zabul attack.

Mohammad Mohaqiq, a prominent Hazara leader and second vice president to Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah in Afghanistan’s unity government, condemned the kidnapping in a speech last week.

“If a poor man is not able to go out and find food for his family, this country will become a house of horrors,” Mohaqiq said.

Reporting by Sarwar Amani in Kandahar, Mustafa Andalib in Ghazni, and Mirwais Harooni and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Writing by Krista Mahr; Editing by Rosalind Russell