Human Rights Watch today warned that the Taliban's current military offensive in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan could result in the torture and deaths of many more ethnic Hazaras, a Shi'ite minority whom the Taliban has targeted in the past. Aid workers in Pakistan say that thousands of Hazaras were killed when the Taliban took the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif last month.

Human Rights Watch called on the United Nations Security Council, which has already expressed deep concern about the human rights situation in Afghanistan, to launch a formal investigation into the killings in Mazar-e Sharif, with the aim of setting up a tribunal if appropriate.

"The outside world has for too long ignored the crisis in Afghanistan," said Patricia Gossman, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Meanwhile, Afghanistan's neighbors have kept the war going. Intervention by the U.N. now might help insure that one day the victims obtain justice and the cycle of violence is slowed, if not stopped."

The U.N. should also initiate urgent talks with the Taliban to post human rights observers on the ground in Hazarajat, Gossman said. She noted that since the U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan last month, all foreign aid workers have been evacuated, leaving no witnesses to the war.

Human Rights Watch further called on the United States and the European Union to urge the International Monetary Fund to bear in mind Pakistan's role in providing military support to the Taliban as the agency considers a planned economic rescue package for Pakistan. Pakistan should also condemn the killings and investigate the role Pakistani fighters may have played in the massacres, Gossman said.

Western diplomats, UN officials, and Western aid workers say thousands of Hazaras, mostly males, were killed in front of their families in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of the anti-Taliban alliance in northern Afghanistan, when the Taliban captured the city last month. According to aid workers, young men over 16 had their throats slit, while younger boys and women had both hands chopped off at the wrist.

These attacks on the Hazaras have the potential of igniting a wider war. Iran has long backed the Hazara militia, Hezb-e Wahdat, while Pakistan has supported the Taliban. A senior Taliban official has confirmed that nine of the eleven Iranian diplomats nationals missing since the city of Mazar-e Sharif fell to Taliban forces last month were killed. A number of Pakistanis, including members of the extremist Sunni organization Sipah-i-Sahaba, reportedly fought with the Taliban in Mazar-e Sharif. The Taliban is now poised to move further into the central enclave of Hazarajat, a region populated almost exclusively by Hazaras, and home now to many displaced Hazaras who fled Mazar-e Sharif during the Taliban offensive. According to press reports, the Taliban are closing in on the region from three sides and have already taken several towns. The region's capital city, Bamiyan, is surrounded on all four sides by the Taliban. Since 1997 the Taliban have enforced a blockade on the Hazarajat region, preventing food and other humanitarian assistance from reaching there from the south, while anarchical conditions in the north blocked access from the other direction. The blockade was only lifted temporarily in May of this year.

The Hazaras, a Shi'ite Muslim minority which has suffered a history of discrimination in Afghanistan, have been targeted by the Taliban since the militia began its military campaign four years ago. With few exceptions, the Taliban come from the Pashtun ethnic group that dominates the predominantly rural areas of southeastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan. The Hazaras' Shia faith is anathema to the Taliban, which is seeking to impose its version of a Sunni Muslim theocracy in Afghanistan. The Taliban has jailed Hazara refugees returning from Iran. Among those fleeing the current fighting, Hazaras have been stopped and taken away for questioning.

The enmity also has its roots in the cycles of revenge killings that have marked Afghanistan's civil war: The Hazara militia Hezb-I Wahdat was responsible for atrocities against Pashtuns before the Taliban took Kabul, and may have been involved in the massacre of some 2000 Taliban soldiers during a failed attempt by the Taliban to take Mazar-e Sharif in May 1997. The U.N. promised to investigate the massacre but failed to do so. If a tribunal is established, those killings should also come under its purview.

The Taliban has denied responsibility for the killings but has refused to allow aid workers, the UN, or foreign journalists to return to Mazar-e Sharif