Nearly 20 Hazaras taken in February in a brazen hostage-taking in southern Afghanistan have reportedly been released, although a high-ranking Kabul official has debunked suggestions that they were part of a prisoner exchange with terrorists.
Ata Jan Haqbaya, a provincial council member in the southern Zabul Province, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that 19 Hazara hostages were exchanged for 22 people. He said the exchange took place on May 11 in the Jaghori district of the eastern Ghazni Province.
Another local official, Asadullah Kakar, said the 22 individuals were foreigners, some of them women and children, who were likely related to the kidnappers.
Kakar claimed that the kidnappers requested that six Uzbeks be released in exchange for the remaining Hazara hostages they hold.
Thirty members of the minority Hazara ethnic group traveling from Iran to Kabul were seized on February 23 by masked gunmen as they travelled late at night through Zabul.
Local officials said that the kidnappers rounded up male Hazara passengers and whisked them away on two buses while women, children, and non-Hazaras were left behind.
The mass kidnapping took place a month after dozens of mainly Hazara protesters rallied in Kabul, calling for Afghan security forces to be deployed for military action against Islamic State (IS) militants in Afghanistan.
Afghan authorities -- including Haji Muhammad Muhaqiq, second deputy of the chief executive officer of Afghanistan -- initially blamed an affiliate of the Islamic State group for the abductions. However, no group has claimed responsibility.
On May 5, Muhaqiq said that relatives of those who carried out the February attacks had indeed been released, but not as part of a prisoner swap.
"A number of women and children who had been left behind in the past in an incident during winter in Kohestanat Badakhshan and were related to those who committed terrorist attacks were kept as guests in a government-run guest house in Kabul," he said. "They were released apparently for humanitarian reasons, but I don’t think [they] were released in exchange for prisoners."
In March, Afghan security officials said that dozens of militants had been killed in the country's south in an attempt to free the kidnapped Hazaras.
Members of Afghanistan's Shi'ite Hazara community are often the target of sectarian violence by Sunni Muslim extremists and the mainly Pashtun Taliban fighters.
In April, an unknown armed group kidnapped and beheaded four ethnic Hazara men in Ghazni Province.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani condemned the killing of the Hazaras as an "inhuman and unforgivable act."