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(New York) -- An August massacre of civilians by Taliban troops in Mazar-i Sharif is one of the worst atrocities of Afghanistan's long civil war, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

Human Rights Watch is the first international human rights organization to interview survivors of the massacre who reached safety in Pakistan.

According to eyewitnesses quoted in the report, Taliban troops taking control of Mazar-i Sharif sought out and executed members of the Hazara ethnic group, who are Sh'ia Muslims. The Taliban are believers in a strict version of Sunni Islam.

"In a very brutal war, this is a particularly brutal episode," said Patricia Gossman, senior researcher of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division. "We are talking about the systematic execution of perhaps 2,000 civilians, in large part because of their ethnic and religious identity."

The massacre began when Taliban troops entered the northern Afghanistan city on August 8, shooting at "anything that moved" in what witnesses described as a "killing frenzy." In the days that followed, the troops conducted house-to-house searches, arresting and executing Hazara men and boys. Eyewitnesses reported that troops demanded they recite Sunni prayers to prove they were not Hazara. Scores and perhaps hundreds of Hazara men and boys were summarily executed, apparently to ensure that they would be unable to mount any resistance to the Taliban.

During these days of terror in Mazar, the Taliban governor, Mulla Manon Niazi, delivered many speeches inciting violence against Hazaras and accusing them of killing Taliban troops, including prisoners, in a 1997 battle. These speeches clearly indicate that the killings were not the actions of renegade forces, but had the sanction of Taliban authorities.

Taliban troops detained thousands of men from various ethnic communities. The men were held first in the overcrowded city jail, and then transported to other cities, including Shiberghan, Herat and Qandahar. Most of the prisoners were transported in large container trucks capable of holding 100 to 150 people. In two known instances, nearly all of the men suffocated or died of heat stroke inside the closed metal containers. As of late October, some 4,500 men from Mazar remained in detention.

Taliban troops also killed civilians in aerial bombardments and rocket attacks on panicked citizens fleeing southward out of the city, toward the Alborz mountains. Human Rights Watch is also concerned by persistent reports that women and girls, particularly in certain Hazara neighborhoods of Mazar-i Sharif, were raped and abducted during the Taliban takeover of the city.

As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan submits his report to the U.N. General Assembly this week, Human Rights Watch urged the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to conduct a thorough investigation into the massacre and the full range of abuses that took place in Mazar-i Sharif. The Taliban apparently carried out the massacre in revenge for the killing of thousands of its own soldiers in Mazar in 1997. Human Rights Watch urged the United Nations to investigate that atrocity as well.

"Determining the truth about what happened would represent the first step toward accountability," said Gossman. "It could also provide a means toward breaking the cycle of revenge killings that has characterized the civil war in Afghanistan."

Human Rights Watch called on the international community to do everything possible to urge the Taliban to permit such an investigation to go forward. The U.N. Secretary-General should try to facilitate the mission, and all U.N. departments and agencies should lend their logistic support to it.

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