(New York)-Human Rights Watch today released fresh eyewitness accounts of a massacre of hundreds of civilians by Taliban forces in Afghanistan last month.

Human Rights Watch urged the United Nations to step up efforts to investigate the massacre, citing previous failures by the U.N. to hold Afghanistan's warring parties accountable for grave abuses. It was critical, Human Rights Watch said, that the investigation be conducted by a small, expert team as quickly as possible, before crucial evidence disappears.

The new report, "Massacres of Hazaras in Afghanistan," gives detailed accounts of the January 2001 massacre in the central highlands of Afghanistan as well as new evidence related to an earlier massacre in May 2000. In both cases, the victims were primarily Hazaras, a Shia Muslim ethnic group that has been the target of previous abuses by Taliban forces. Afghan humanitarian aid workers were among those killed.

"The international focus on Afghanistan in recent months has been almost exclusively on the Taliban's reported support for terrorism abroad," said Sidney Jones, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "The same energy should be directed to stopping the killings of civilians inside Afghanistan."

On February 16, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson called for the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into human rights violations in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch is concerned that such a commission would take too long to establish; the need is for a small team of experts that can be deployed immediately.

"A prompt and thorough investigation could deter further killings of Afghan civilians," said Jones. "The U.N. so far has failed to systematically document and pursue accountability for abuses in Afghanistan."

The massacres documented in the report took place in the context of the six-year civil war between the Taliban and parties now grouped in the United National Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan. The killings were part of a pattern of efforts to intimidate minority populations and to deter them from cooperating with the United Front, Human Rights Watch said.

The report quotes eyewitness accounts of the January 8-12, 2001 killings. According to those sources, Taliban forces retook the town of Yakaolang, in Bamiyan province, nine days after they had been driven out by two Shia-based parties in the United Front. After conducting search operations throughout the city and nearby villages, the Taliban detained about 300 civilian adult males, including staff members of humanitarian organizations. The men were herded to assembly points in the center of the district and several outlying areas, and then shot by firing squad in public view.

The May 2000 massacre took place near the Robatak pass on the border between Baghlan and Samanagan provinces in north central Afghanistan. All of those killed had been detained for four months and many of them were tortured before they were killed. Human Rights Watch has obtained confirmation that thirty-one bodies were found at the site, of which twenty-six have been positively identified as civilians from Baghlan province. There are reported to be as many as three other grave sites scattered along the same road north of the pass toward the city of Mazar-i Sharif.

Taliban forces were driven out of Yakaolang by the United Front on January 23, 2001. In a major setback to the Taliban, the United Front also captured Bamiyan city, the provincial capital, on the night of February 13-14. Taliban authorities had barred journalists from visiting the region, while denying that their forces had massacred civilians in Yakaolang.