ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. In Afghanistan, members of a Shia minority group called the Hazaras say they are being targeted by Sunni insurgents. Since February, a string of reported abductions have left their community reeling, and many fear a return to sectarian civil war. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: The first abduction of Hazaras this year was also the largest. In southern Afghanistan, gunmen stopped a pair of buses and took 31 people hostage. The vast majority of them were Hazara. That was back in February.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)
UNIDENTIFIED DEMONSTRATORS: (Chanting in foreign language).
HERSHER: Outside the Afghan Parliament a few weeks ago, about 50 people held signs in Dari and English calling for the hostages' release. Mohammad Zahir's brother, Hussain, was one of the hostages.
MOHAMMAD ZAHIR: That's what we want from our government - to release them, to - at least to hear our voices, to feel what we are feeling from these two months. What's going on in our country?
HERSHER: Zahir says Hazaras were clearly targeted in the abduction. Since then, the al-Qaida-affiliated militia holding the hostages has used them as leverage for prisoner swaps and cash ransoms. And since the attack, there have been local media reports of seven other Hazara abductions in Afghanistan, which makes Zahir and other Hazaras fear what they see as a rise in sectarian violence. Ahmad Nureed Tanin has been organizing protests for months.
AHMAD NUREED TANIN: They were (unintelligible) but unfortunately, they were just, by the name that they are Hazaras and they are Shia, they arrested them.
HERSHER: But according to a recent report by the Afghan Analyst Network, violence against Shiites is not on the rise. Qayoom Suroush analyzed eight abductions since February and found no systemic targeting of minorities.
QAYOOM SUROUSH: (Through interpreter) What we find is there is not any new systematic targeting of Hazaras, but there is a real fear that that might happen.
HERSHER: Suroush found reports by the media and local authorities often speculate about the tribal affiliations of hostages. And in the wake of February's bus attack, there is often an assumption that Hazaras are being targeted, even when they're not. Suroush says these false reports are potentially dangerous because they create a climate where attacking minorities seems commonplace.
SUROUSH: (Through interpreter) There is a real danger that they start targeting Hazaras across the country.
HERSHER: This week, the government secured the release of 19 of the hostages taken in February in exchange for turning over Uzbek militia prisoners. Afghan authorities are keeping the identities of the released prisoners secret, they say, to protect the remaining hostages. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.