KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan's senior Shiite community leader said on Saturday the Islamic State group is responsible for kidnapping dozens of Shiite men and boys in February.
Mohammad Mohaqiq said two former Taliban leaders, who switched allegiance to the rival Islamic State group, were responsible for the abduction of 31 members of the minority Shiite Hazara community on Feb. 24 in southern Zabul province.
He spoke with The Associated Press on Saturday. It is the first time an Afghan leader has confirmed Islamic State group involvement in the kidnappings.
Mohaqiq, who is a deputy to Afghanistan's Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, named Mullah Mansur Dadullah and a deputy, Mullah Abdullah Kakar, as behind the abductions. Muhaqiq said the two prominent Islamic militants had simply "changed their white flag" of the Taliban for the black IS flag.
Afghan security forces had launched an operation to find the Hazaras in the week after the kidnappings, Mohaqiq said, but the effort failed.
The men have now been split up into groups of three or four and were being held in different areas of the mountainous province, Mohaqiq said. As far as he knew, they were still alive.
The Hazaras were abducted from two vehicles on a major road in Zabul province by men described by officials at the time as wearing black clothing and black masks. The armed kidnappers separated the men and boys from women, children and non-Hazaras in the vehicles.
The kidnappings sent shockwaves through Hazara communities across the country and led to widespread demonstrations. On Saturday, an estimated 4,000 Hazaras marched through northern Mazar-i-Sharif, organizers said. More demonstrations are planned in Kabul in coming days.
"People across the country are worried and they want the government to speed up its actions to resolve this," Mohaqiq said. "The government will do anything it has in hand for their release, from negotiations to fighting."
For the past month, relatives of some abductees have held a protest vigil in a makeshift camp outside the parliament in Kabul.
Mohammad Zahir, 33, said his brother Hussain, 30, was returning to Kabul from Iran to renew his visa when he was abducted. "We have lost our hope that the government can do anything for us. Whenever we go to government officials or to our elders, they don't give us any response that makes us feel hopeful," he said.
Ismail Kayhan, 23, said he would keep up his daily protest until his father, Mohammad Juma, 55, was safely returned to his family. "The government hasn't done anything, and even if they have, we don't know about it," he said.
Hazara people, who account for as much as 25 percent of Afghanistan's population, are mainly Shiite. The group has been targeted by the Taliban and other Sunni extremists, who view Shiites as apostates. The predominantly ethnic Pashtun and Sunni Taliban persecuted the Hazara minority during their 1996-2001 rule, when they imposed a harsh version of Islamic law on the country.
The presence in Afghanistan of the Islamic State group, which controls about a third of Iraq and Syria and is known for its extreme violence, is widely acknowledged but officials have been reluctant to confirm the involvement of the group in the Hazara kidnappings. Other Hazara abductions in other areas of the country have been blamed on the Taliban.
Associated Press writer Ahmad Seir contributed to this report.
Follow Lynne O'Donnell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/lynnekodonnell