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Why is Islamic State claiming responsibility for killing Hazara deminers in Afghanistan?

Halo_Trust_mine_clearing_person_asianews.it.jpg

Representational image: Mine clearing operation in progress (Pic: Courtesy asianews.it)

After days of speculation, it is now clear that it was not the Taliban but the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province (ISKP), which was responsible for the brutal murder of 10 Hazara community mine clearance workers in Afghanistan.

In a statement on Friday, the UN Security Council condemned “in the strongest terms” the “atrocious and cowardly targeted attack against humanitarian mine clearance workers” the June 8 attack claimed by the Islamic state in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

The landmine workers were employed by Halo Trust, a NGO founded by Lady Diana, who had made elimination of anti-personnel mines as her lifelong mission. 

The NGO-- the largest demining organization in Afghanistan—had earlier said in a statement on Wednesday, that a group of masked gunmen attacked the camp in the night when all staff were sleeping. 

“Around 110 men, from local communities in northern Afghanistan, were in the camp having finished their work on nearby minefields,” it said.

Afghan officials blamed the heinous crime on Taliban militants.

But the Taliban, fighting to overthrow Afghanistan's government has denied any involvement in the targeting of the Hazara deminers.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesperson, condemned the attack on civilians and called it an act of brutality. In a tweet on Wednesday, he said. “We have normal relations with NGOs, our Mujahidin will never carry out such brutal acts.”

For historical reasons, landmine clearing is a major undertaking in Afghanistan.  After decades of conflict in the Hindukush mountains, Afghanistan has been  strewn with mines and unexploded ordnance. Various agencies have been working to clear them since 1988 after the Soviet withdrawal, which has been followed by civil wars.

Around 3000 employees of various ethnicities belonging to Halo Trust have been working in Afghanistan for more than three decades, freely moving even near the frontlines. So far, they had not faced any trouble with any militant group. In fact, warring factions have helped deminers to carry on with their humanitarian work in the past. The province of Baghlan where the latest attack took place has been the scene of fighting between the government and the Taliban for weeks.

The CEO of Halo Trust, James Cowan said in a tweet that the attackers had gone "bed to bed" shooting the workers "in cold blood". The  attackers had specifically targeted members of the Hazara ethnic minority group and it seems attackers wanted to instil fear among them.

One survivor of the attack said the gunmen had asked if any of them were from the Hazara minority community before opening fire.

Analysts point out the deliberate attack on the Hazara  community by ISKP serves at least four  objectives. First, it deepens the animosity between Afghanistan’s several ethnic communities, seriously impeding intra-Afghan unity. Second, the move further exacerbates tension between the Sunni and Shia communities, which echoes strongly in the region, including West Asia, Central Asia and South Asia. Third, it will weaken the Afghan state, as it will spur the rise of warlords whose legitimacy will be co-linked with their community’s defence. Finally, the deepening social divisions allow ISIS to expand its footprint in Afghanistan.

Unsurprisingly, around three weeks ago, a bomb blast at Kabul’s Sayed-ul-Shuhada high school killed over 60 girl students and left more than 150. The school is situated in Dasht-e-Barchi which is home to Hazaras, who are close to neighbouring Iran. 

According to Habibullah Amiri, a Hazara activist who is part of a team that helps families of the victims and survivors of the attacks, atrocities against Hazaras have been going on for long. He points out that new born babies, newly-wed brides, pregnant women, high school students, worshipers, girl students and passengers of Hazara community have deliberately been targeted by militants over the last 20 years. Hazaras, Afghanistan's third-largest ethnic group, have faced long-term discrimination and persecution, primarily because of their Shia Muslim faith. In recent years, they have faced abductions and killings by IS and the Taliban, which are both Sunni Muslim.

While the Taliban has been denying its involvement, the IS has continued to claim responsibility for the attacks.

But some senior leaders of the Hazara community based in Kabul say that there are deliberate ongoing attempts by some Taliban sub-groups to point at a phantomatic ISIS involvement in the Hazara genocide.

Rahila Muhibi, a Human rights activist who has been working against the Hazara “genocide” said in a tweet that the Hazara community has been voicing their security concerns to different stakeholders since 2014, but to no avail. 

“Singling out has been over centuries of calculated policies that have taken different forms in every regime. Hazaras know this feeling really well as a community. This must stop immediately,” she tweeted.

According to an Afghan journalist Shahzaib Wallah, the numbers of Hazaras living in Afghanistan have reduced to 10 percent of the total population. They live mostly in the states of the central part of the country called Hazarajat-- the land of Hazara community, in the flatlands of the Bamiyan province. In neighbouring Pakistan, the population of Hazaras is around 600,000 to 900,000 with most of them based in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province.

Even in Pakistan, the Hazaras have been targeted over many years by Sunni extremists, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba and Islamic State (IS). According to a 2019 report by Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights, an independent watchdog, more than 2000 Hazara have been murdered for their faith since 2012.

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