Nineteen kidnapped Afghans released, 12 more could be freed soon - officials

By Mustafa Andalib GHAZNI, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Nineteen Afghan men from among 31 kidnapped by gunmen from a bus in February were freed on Monday by their captors, and the rest could be released soon, officials said. The men are Hazaras, members of a largely Shi'ite ethnic minority persecuted under the Taliban movement's Sunni Islamist rule, although sectarian violence has been rare since the Taliban was ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. The kidnapping increased anxiety among Hazaras, who fear becoming targets in a new, sectarian phase of Afghanistan's long war with Taliban insurgents and other Islamist militants. It was not immediately clear if there was a ransom or prisoner exchange involved in Monday's release, nor who had held the men prisoner. "They are in a good health condition," said Zafar Sharif, the governor of a district in the eastern Afghan province of Ghazni, where the men were handed over to community elders who had worked to win their release. The released men had been taken to a safe location, he added. In February, gunmen in the southern province of Zabul forced 31 men off the bus in which they were travelling. Witnesses at the time said they appeared to have been picked because they are Hazara. Later, the captives were shifted to Ghazni. "Now we are working to transfer these 19 people to Kabul safely and efforts are on to pave the way for 12 others to get free soon," said Mohammad Ali Ahmadi, a deputy governor of Ghazni. Neither official would elaborate on the deal to free the men. The Zabul kidnapping was followed by other reports of Hazaras being targeted, and prominent Hazara leader Mohammad Mohaqiq blamed militants influenced by the vehement rhetoric of Islamic State. Islamic State, which holds swaths of Iraq and Syria, so far has little proven military presence in Afghanistan, though several Taliban commanders have formally sworn allegiance to the Middle East-based movement. (Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)