By Ismail Sameem
KANDAHAR (Reuters) - Seven Afghan civilians believed kidnapped by the Taliban last month have been found dead with their hands bound behind their backs and apparently tortured, local officials in the southern province of Zabul said on Wednesday.
The apparent executions may have been punishment for working for Afghan security forces, the officials said, underscoring the growing threat of attack faced by civilians associated with local forces as foreign troops withdraw.
"They were brutally tortured and then shot dead," said Zabul deputy governor Mohammad Jan Rasulyar. "Our belief is that the Taliban killed them because they thought they were serving in the Afghan security forces."
The Taliban, ousted from power in 2001 but fighting a fierce insurgency against foreign and Afghan forces, were not immediately available for comment, but have previously said that government and security personnel were legitimate targets.
Mounting attacks are an ominous sign that violence will pick up once bases set up by foreign soldiers are closed ahead of their departure by the end of 2014, and as Afghan forces take over securing the country.
The West is hoping a presidential election scheduled for April next year will run smoothly and help the authorities impose some kind of stability, but the Taliban have rejected the vote and vowed to fight until foreign forces leave.
Police officers in Zabul said they were attacked by Taliban fighters when they attempted to recover the bodies after receiving a tip-off about their whereabouts. They killed three insurgents during an operation to clear the area.
"We rushed to the dead bodies. We saw that the Taliban had chained their hands behind their backs and killed them brutally. They were all civilians kidnapped by the Taliban," said police chief Ghulam Sakhi.
In August, the Taliban executed 12 people in the western Herat province because they had been working with the local government on how better to manage its projects.
The United Nations has repeatedly drawn attention to the rise in civilian casualties this year and what it says is a weakening commitment on the part of authorities to protect basic human rights.
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Writing by Jessica Donati; Editing by Mike Collett-White)