Residents and international human rights watchdogs are criticizing the Taliban for grave rights abuses that have been reported in its military campaign against a dissident commander in a remote part of northern Afghanistan.
Civilians in Balkhab, a rural district in the Sar-e Pul Province, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that they have faced atrocities and collective punishment -- including extrajudicial executions -- during a recent offensive.
The Taliban rejected the accusations and claimed to have restored security to the areas after subduing the rebellion.
The operation is targeting Mehdi Mujahid, formerly the most senior ethnic Hazara security official in the Taliban government. The former head of Taliban intelligence in the central province of Bamiyan, Mujahid was angered by the Taliban leadership after he was dismissed for unspecified reasons in early June.
Mujahid accused Taliban leaders of alienating the predominately Shi'ite Hazara minority by depriving them of government posts and civic rights.
The two sides clashed after the Taliban attacked Mujahid’s stronghold in Balkhab. Locals told RFE/RL about intense fighting as both sides claimed to have caused casualties, though it is impossible to verify the conflicting claims. Fighting appeared to have calmed down as of June 28.
Afghan media outlets have reported that scores of civilians in Balkhab have been killed. They have also said hundreds have been displaced from the region and fled to the neighboring Bamiyan Province.
'Crimes Against Humanity'
Many of Balkhab's some 100,000 residents are clearly in distress.
“Crimes against humanity are now taking place in Balkhab,” a male resident of the district who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons told Radio Azadi.
“Crime after crime is taking place. People are under threat,” he said. "I want to ask the United Nations and independent media to probe these abuses.”
Mujahid’s rebellion comes amid growing divisions within the Taliban.
While Uzbek, Tajik, and Hazara Taliban members are a minority of the Islamist group dominated by Pashtun clerics, they were instrumental in capturing northern provinces in the run-up to the Taliban's takeover of the country in August.
But some prominent Taliban commanders who are ethnic minorities have been fired or demoted in recent months.
The current offensive has added to the Taliban's difficulties.
The fundamentalist group's government had already faced accusations of ethnic discrimination and armed resistance from the National Resistance Front (NRF), a predominantly Tajik militia in the northern Panjshir and Baghlan provinces.
The NRF and Taliban have engaged in clashes during the past three months, with civilians in the regions accusing the hard-line Islamists of beatings, arbitrary arrests, illegal killings, and forced displacement.
The Taliban is now facing growing criticism of its conduct in confronting the latest rebellion in Balkhab.
The United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) said on June 29 that it is "concerned by reports of civilian harm, displacement, allegations of serious human rights violations, and property damage due to the recent outbreak of conflict" in Balkhab.
The organization tasked with assisting "the state and the people of Afghanistan in laying the foundations for sustainable peace and development" said it will follow up on the reports of atrocities.
Earlier in the week, Richard Bennett, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Afghanistan, said he regretted that the verification of rights abuses in Balkhab was hampered by an “information blackout, Internet [cuts,] and denial of access to media and HR monitors.”
He said reports of extrajudicial killings, civilian displacement, property destruction, and other rights abuses in Balkhab are "disturbing."
Patricia Gossman, the associate Asia director for Human Rights Watch, described as “alarming” reports from Balkhab, where Taliban forces reportedly carried out summary executions of detainees in retaliation for armed resistance.
She tweeted that the “Taliban should cease all such collective punishments and other war crimes and hold their forces accountable.”
Amnesty International also weighed in on the clashes that first broke out last week as the Taliban deployed forces against Mujahid after parleys ended.
The watchdog called on the conflicting parties to respect the "laws of war in all hostilities and avoid harming civilians and civilian objects."
It called on the international community to pay attention to the increasing human rights violations in Afghanistan.
“As the de facto authorities in Afghanistan, the Taliban has a primary responsibility to end the attacks against civilians and ensure justice and accountability,” Amnesty said in a statement on June 27.
A Tipping Point?
But the Taliban continues to reject the accusations.
"In Balkhab, the situation has returned to normal,” chief Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted. "No one was abused or oppressed [and] the propaganda about the mistreatment of civilians or casualties is not true."
But the Taliban has yet to allow independent observers assess the situation. In a sign that the region is reeling from significant military unrest, Qari Fasihuddin Fitrat, the Taliban army’s chief of staff, visited Balkhab on June 23.
Mujahid, the dissident Taliban commander, had accused the group of "disenfranchising" the Hazara after he was fired from his post earlier this month. Some say he wanted control of a local coal mine in his native Balkhab.
Author Antonio Giustozzi, a Taliban expert at Kings College London, says the power struggle among various Taliban factions seems to have reached a tipping point. He cites the example of various ethnic Uzbek Taliban commanders who were sidelined since the beginning of the year. Giustozzi argues that even Fitrat is not happy over a gradual loss of real power during the past 10 months.
“This seems to be a classic conflict between a centralized government and local actors seeking autonomy,” he wrote recently for the BBC.