Fear stalks Afghan minorities after rare attacks

Afghanistan has endured more than 30 years of warfare, but recent attacks on minority Muslim sects have raised fears that sectarian unrest could add yet another layer of bloodshed.

Kabul: Afghanistan has endured more than 30 years of warfare, but recent attacks on minority Muslim sects have raised fears that sectarian unrest could add yet another layer of bloodshed.

On March 7, gunmen stormed a Sufi mosque in Kabul, killing at least six people in an attack on the mystic order of Muslims that is seen as heretical by hardline Sunni factions.

And in late February, a group of 30 people from the Hazara minority group who were travelling by bus through southern Zabul province of Afghanistan were snatched by gunmen after returning from Iran.

The Taliban, who are waging an insurgency against the government of Kabul, distanced themselves from both incidents, which are more commonplace across the border in Pakistan.

But the rare attacks have sent shockwaves through both communities who see them as chilling reminders of the Taliban`s rule from 1996 to 2001, when minorities were heavily persecuted.

The number of civilians killed and wounded in Afghanistan jumped 22 percent in 2014, the UN said last month, as NATO troops withdrew from combat leaving government forces to battle a raging Taliban insurgency.At the Bahaduria Sufi mosque in the west of Kabul, worshippers gather around their new leader Abdul Waheed Bahaduri, the son of slain leader Agha Jan Bahaduri, who founded the order and who was killed along with his other son in the recent attack.

The building is now both a mosque and a shrine with the bodies of the two men buried in the front yard, with several policemen standing guard.

"We had never witnessed such an attack on Sufis in the past, this is the very first time," the soft-spoken 28 year-old Bahaduri told AFP.

"My father was a spiritual leader, he was a Sufi, he was not involved in politics, he had no enemies" he said, adding that his father had around 5,000 followers in two main centres in Kabul.

Afghanistan is thought to be home to thousands of Sufis, whose teachings emphasise inner peace.

Though no group claimed responsibility for the attack, authorities swiftly announced they had arrested five people suspected of involvement. 

"We don`t know who did it, we have no enemies. I don`t know the motive behind this attack, but as the followers of God we will stand firm. The followers are determined to stay alert and continue the path of their leader," said Bahaduri.

The attack sent ripples through the community with several other Sufi meeting places either closing their doors or removing their sign boards.

Sami Jan, a follower of the Naqshbandi Sufi order, said: "After the attack, our members stopped coming and gathering in mosques, so we decided to temporarily close the meeting houses and stop gatherings.

"Our followers provide security for us, the government has never protected us. Maybe somebody intentionally want to target Sufis and other minorities to incite sectarian violence in the country."The attack came just three weeks after the chilling abduction of the dozens of Hazara, with relatives still awaiting any word from the kidnappers.

Last week scores of people including the relatives of those kidnapped gathered in Kabul to ask the government to do more to secure their loved ones` release.

"I request the Afghan government to use all the available resources to free the hostages as soon as possible. This is the government`s responsibility to secure the release of each Afghan," Naimatullah, 28, whose father is among the abductees, told AFP.

"What has the government done for the release of our relatives? Nothing! There is no news from them at all. If they were Koreans or Italians they would be swapped and released. But as a Hazara there is no news about our relatives." Hameeda Panahi, 25, another protester said.

Both the army and senior Hazara political leaders have linked the killings with the rise of the Islamic State group`s influence in Afghanistan. 

"Long before the 31 Hazaras were kidnapped I knew that there was a plot to change Afghanistan to Waziristan... they wanted to promote sectarian violence," Mohammad Mohaqiq, the country`s most senior Hazara politician told a gathering last week.

Although the presence of IS fighters in Afghanistan has not been confirmed, some Afghan and Pakistani militants have recently pledged their allegiance to the jihadists who control swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq.

The Afghan military meanwhile last month launched an operation in the south of the country to free the abductees, killing dozens of militants whom they described as supporters and sympathisers of IS including Pakistanis, Uzbeks and Chechens. 

"They have come to kill and kidnap Hazaras, then they will kill Sunnis and this way they want to destroy Afghanistan with religious and ethnic tension," Mohaqiq said.

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