At least 50 dead in violent clashes in country’s south as group split over appointment of new leader stokes tension.
Unidentified gunmen stormed three buses on a highway in Afghanistan’s Zabul province abducting a dozen people from a minority group, officials have said.
Mirwais Noorzai, the Zabul police chief, told Al Jazeera that the buses were stopped on Saturday on the main road between Kabul and the southern city of Kandahar.
“The gunmen stopped buses and kidnapped passengers. No one has claimed responsibility for it. However, our investigations are under way,” he said.
“We cannot give a number, but they were about a dozen. The gunmen asked for Hazaras on the bus and asked for identification cards of the passengers.”
A witness and the manager of the transport company confirmed that the kidnappers asked for Hazara among the passengers before kidnapping them.
“They entered the bus pointing guns and asked if there were Shia Hazaras among us. When the driver replied saying ‘no’, they went around checking everyone’s identification cards,” Mohammed Qasim, a passenger on the bus told Al Jazeera.
“We were all terrified. It could be the Taliban or some other group. We are still not sure; however, they picked up Hazaras among us.”
Agha Jan, manager of a company that transports passengers frequently from Kabul to Kandahar, said his buses were stopped by masked men searching for people who looked like members of the Hazara community.
“The armed men who kidnapped the group were speaking the local language,” Jan added.
Hazaras are a minority ethnic group that are predominantly Shia Muslims.
This month, seven Hazara were found dead in Zabul after being abducted in neighbouring Ghazni province up to six months earlier. They were beheaded with razor wire. Among them were two women and a child.
The killings sparked demonstrations nationwide, including in the capital Kabul, where thousands of people demanded from the government to improve security across the country.
The coffins of the beheaded victims were brought to Kabul and carried on the shoulders of demonstrators, whose protest covered a distance of more than eight kilometres.
The Hazara have long suffered oppression and persecution in Afghanistan. During the 1990s, thousands were killed by al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
Afghanistan has several ethnic groups including Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and Turkmen – mainly in the north and west – as well as Pashtun, located primarily in the south and east.
Additional reporting by Shereena Qazi. Follow her on Twitter @ShereenaQazi