Gunmen abduct 30 Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan: Officials

Masked gunmen have abducted 30 Shiite Muslim men who were travelling by bus through southern Afghanistan after returning from Iran, officials and a witness said on Tuesday.

Kabul: Masked gunmen have abducted 30 Shiite Muslim men who were travelling by bus through southern Afghanistan after returning from Iran, officials and a witness said on Tuesday.

The men, members of the minority Hazara ethnic group, were seized on Monday evening in Zabul province, on the road between the western city of Herat and the capital Kabul.

Hazara Shiite Muslims are often the target of sectarian violence at the hands of Sunni Muslim extremists in Pakistan, though such attacks have been relatively rare in Afghanistan.

"Our driver saw a group of masked men in Afghan army uniform signalling him and he thought they were soldiers so he stopped," Nasir Ahmad, an official with the Ghazni Paima bus company, told AFP.

"The gunmen took 30 Hazaras away with them."

Ahmad said the kidnappers took only the men on the two buses and not the women and children travelling with them.

A female passenger, who asked not to be named, told AFP they were returning from a trip to Shiite-majority Iran when their buses were stopped by the men in uniform.

"They were standing on the highway with their faces covered," said the woman, whose relatives were among those kidnapped.

"They only took Hazaras, including my cousins. After they took the people, the police arrived but they refused to go after the kidnappers, saying they needed orders from Kabul."No one immediately claimed responsibility for the abduction, but kidnappings for ransom by bandits, local militias and Taliban insurgents are common in Afghanistan.

Interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said police were "doing everything to ensure their safe release".

Nearly 200 Hazara Shiites were killed in early 2013 in two major attacks in the Pakistani city of Quetta, capital of Baluchistan province which borders southern Afghanistan.

US-led NATO forces ended their combat mission in Afghanistan in late December after more than a decade fighting the Taliban, having failed fully to quell their insurgency.

Civilian casualties rose sharply last year as local forces took on the task of battling the militants, with 22 percent more killed or wounded in conflict than in 2013.

There have been fears recently that the influence of the Islamic State (IS) group, which has a strongly anti-Shiite agenda, could be growing in Afghanistan.

New US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Saturday Washington was seriously considering slowing the pace of its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan as the fight continues against the resilient Taliban insurgency.

Under the current plan, the 10,000-strong US force is due to drop to about 5,500 by the end of 2015 and then pull out altogether by the time President Barack Obama leaves office in two years.

Afghan leaders and some lawmakers have urged Obama to reconsider the withdrawal timetable, warning that an early US exit could jeopardise security and international aid.

US General John Campbell, the commander of the remaining NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the reassessment was taking into account the potential threat posed by IS in the country.

Campbell told reporters that while IS had only a "nascent" presence in Afghanistan, the risk they pose was weighing on President Ashraf Ghani`s mind and US forces were tracking it closely.

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