KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan officials said kidnappers on Monday released 19 hostages out of a group of 30 that was kidnapped in February, all members of the Hazara ethnic community from the country's southern Zabul province.
Asadullah Kakar, a provincial council member in Zabul, said the 19 were freed in exchange for 22 Uzbeks, though it was not immediately clear how the Uzbeks came into government custody.
Kakar said the 22, including women and children, are probably family members of the kidnappers. The kidnappers asked for another six people in exchange for the remaining 11 Hazara hostages they hold.
The exchange took place on Monday morning in the Jaghori district of Ghazni province, Kakar added.
The Hazara are a Shiite ethnic group in Afghanistan. The group has been targeted by the Taliban and other Sunni extremists in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.
Afghan authorities initially blamed an affiliate of the Islamic State group for the kidnapping of the 30 Hazaras in February.
Later Monday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani welcomed the release of the 19. He said they were still in Ghazni province, staying at a guesthouse because of the bad weather, but would later be brought to the capital, Kabul.
Ghani insisted that no ransom had been paid for the release of the hostages, praising local security forces and "local elders" for their efforts — an indication there were likely involved in negotiations over the incident.
"Our attention now is on the remaining hostages and the government is doing all it can to have them return to their families as soon as possible," he told reporters in Kabul.