Prague, 4 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The human rights group Amnesty International has alleged that Taliban Islamic forces killed thousands of ethnic Hazara civilians after capturing last month the town of Mazar-i-Sharif. The Taliban immediately denied the allegation.
Amnesty said in a statement yesterday that "Taliban guards deliberately and systematically killed thousands of Hazara civilians during the first three days following the military takeover" of Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.
Amnesty also said that eleven Iranian nationals -- 10 diplomats and one journalist-- might have been among those killed in the town.
The human rights group, which is based in London, said that its report was based on testimony from local people who said they witnessed those events.
Taliban spokesman Wakil Ahmed Mutawakkil yesterday rejected the report, telling the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press agency that "it is against our religion to kill civilians." Mutawakkil also denied that Taliban forces killed the Iranians. He repeated earlier statements by Taliban officials disclaiming any information about the whereabouts of members of the Iranian group.
Also yesterday, Taliban forces released three Iranian truck drivers and two other Iranian prisoners as an apparent gesture of good will.
Taliban has said that they arrested 35 Iranian truck drivers, accusing them of transporting military hardware for the opposition alliance backed by Iran.
There has been no independent confirmation of any those developments. Afghanistan is a relatively closed country, and gathering information there is strictly limited by forces engaged in the protracted civil war.
Moreover, reports emerging from the area are likely to be influenced by officials, groups or even neighboring countries interested in creating images or perceptions rather than providing reliable information. This has been a recurrent experience in the past months and years.
Even so, there is a strong likelihood that the capture of Mazar-i-Sharif by Taliban gave way to considerable violence, although it is not clear who bears responsibility.
Amnesty alleged that the violence was committed by the Taliban. Other reports cited today by a British newspaper, the Independent, suggested that it might have been members of the Hezb-i-Islami, allies of the Taliban, who were mainly responsible. The number of possible victims is also unknown.
Afghanistan has been torn by violent civil strife for years now, and the conflict has had many different forms, pitting separate ethnic and religious groups against each other.
The fight for Mazar-i-Sharif involved Sunni (Taliban) and Shia (Hazara) Muslims, traditionally hostile to each other.
There was also a possibility of retaliation: last year Taliban forces were captured in the town by the Hazari forces. Outside observers confirmed that Taliban forces were killed at that time.
In addition, there is an international dimension of the current conflict. Shia Muslims are supported by Iran, which, as the Independent newspaper claims, provides them with a constant stream of weaponry. Iran has been strongly critical of Taliban policies. Four days ago Iran began massive military exercises in the vicinity of its border with Afghanistan. There is reason to assume that the exercises are conceived as a warning to Taliban not to impose its control over religious or/and ethnic minorities in the country.
The allegations of killing in Mazar-e-Sharif and continuing uncertainty about the fate of the group of Iranian diplomats stationed there are certain to increase the tension in the area.
(Newsline specialist Bruce Pannier contributed to this report).