MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Gunmen have kidnapped 17 members of Afghanistan's Hazara community, officials said on Thursday, the latest incident involving members of the Shi'ite Muslim minority highlighting the risk of sectarian violence.
The men were abducted on Wednesday afternoon from a bus in the northern province of Sar-i-Pul, with officials blaming Taliban militants.
"The passengers, all our Hazara brothers, were travelling towards the city centre when their van was stopped by the Taliban and taken away," said Zabihullah Amani, spokesman for the provincial governor.
"We have launched an operation to free them but it didn't help, so now the elders are trying to free them," Amani added, referring to village leaders.
Mohammad Noor Rahmani, head of the provincial council, said the kidnapping happened a day after a Taliban commander in the area was detained by Afghan forces during a clash.
"The Taliban may have abducted the passengers to exchange them with their local commander," Rahmani said.
A series of kidnappings against the mainly Shi'ite ethnic Hazaras last year fuelled fears that the community was being targeted in a country long divided by ethnic and political rivalries.
The Taliban were responsible for the mass killing of Hazaras in the 1990s but the militants, fighting to oust the Western-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani, have largely avoided targeting Shi'ite Muslims over recent years.
A rise in Afghanistan in the number of militants claiming allegiance to the Islamic State, a hard-line Sunni movement that emphasises purging Shi'ites, and is a rival to the Taliban, may change that.
(Reporting by Abdul Matin Sahak; Writing by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Robert Birsel)