By Mustafa Andalid
GHAZNI, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A protest convoy drove the bodies of seven members of Afghanistan's minority Hazara community to the capital Kabul on Tuesday to protest against their murder by unknown militants, who dumped their partially beheaded bodies at the weekend.
The killing of the seven Hazara, including three women and two children, during fighting between rival Taliban factions and Islamic State sympathizers, highlighted the risk of worsening sectarianism amid daily violence sweeping Afghanistan.
The mainly Shia Hazaras have long suffered ill-treatment and persecution in Afghanistan, with thousands massacred by al Qaeda and Taliban militias in the 1990s.
This year, a series of kidnappings and murders of Hazara fueled fears that the group was being deliberately targeted, and the latest killings in the southern province of Zabul triggered a furious wave of reaction on social media.
Tuesday's protest convoy underlined the anger among Hazara and followed a march by some 2,000 people in Ghazni, a city in central Afghanistan with a large Hazara community, where the bodies were first taken from Zabul.
Bearing the coffins of the dead aloft and chanting slogans against the Taliban, Islamic State and the government in Kabul, the crowd demanded punishment for the killers.
"We ask the government to find the reason behind this serial killing of Hazaras in Afghanistan and bring the perpetrators to justice," Ghulam Ali, a protester, said.
Provincial officials initially blamed the killings on Islamic State militants, and there were unconfirmed reports that the perpetrators had been caught and summarily executed either by local residents or Taliban.
However, Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS) intelligence agency rejected the reports as Taliban "propaganda".
Separately on Tuesday, Afghan security forces freed eight Hazara, part of a group of 31 who were kidnapped from a bus several months ago, the NDS said in a statement.
Since the killings of the 1990s, the Taliban has largely avoided specifically targeting Hazaras or Shia Muslims, but the rise in the number of fighters claiming allegiance to the even more hardline Islamic State movement may change that.
Afghanistan is divided among a patchwork of ethnic groups, including Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and Turkmen, mainly in the north and west, as well as Pashtun, the largest single group, located mainly in the south and east.
While sectarian violence has regularly broken out in the past, it has not been a major feature of the fighting in recent years and any resurgence would add a dangerous new complication for the government of President Ashraf Ghani.
The Taliban's success in seizing control of the northern city of Kunduz and holding it for three days a few weeks ago delivered a huge blow to public confidence in the government's ability to control security.
But in recent days, the Taliban has been caught up in troubles of its own after a splinter faction defied Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who assumed the leadership in July following confirmation of the death of the movement's founder Mullah Omar.
Fierce fighting between the rival factions continued on Tuesday and spread beyond the southern province of Zabul into Herat and Farah in the west, according to Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, a spokesman for the breakaway faction.
(Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad and Mirwais Harooni, Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Mike Collett-White)