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Human Rights Watch today expressed alarm at reports that Taliban forces had detained about sixty civilians and deliberately destroyed public, residential, and commercial buildings after retaking central Afghanistan's Yakaolang district on Sunday.

The rights group called on the United Nations to make a concerted effort to obtain access to the district for verification of the reports. It also urged Taliban authorities to cooperate with a U.N. investigation and to release all arbitrarily detained civilians.

"The U.N. must press the Taliban to protect civilians and civilian property, and to hold its commanders accountable for abuses," said Sidney Jones, executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "No one has been held accountable for past abuses in Afghanistan - and that has contributed to massive civilian displacement and allowed further attacks on civilians to take place."

Control of Yakaolang has shifted several times over the last six months between the Taliban and Hizb-i Wahdat, a largely Shi'a Muslim and ethnic Hazara party in the northern-based United Front coalition. During a brief occupation of the district last January, Taliban forces summarily executed about 170 civilians in an apparent effort to punish and deter collaboration with Hizb-i Wahdat. The detentions and killings were extensively documented in a February 2001 Human Rights Watch report, "Massacres of Hazaras in Afghanistan." The report can be accessed at the following web address:

On June 5, Hizb-i Wahdat recaptured Yakaolang, ending a month-long occupation of the district by the Taliban. After retreating, Taliban forces countered with a series of air raids in which their planes reportedly bombed the administrative center of Yakaolang, including the district hospital and an aid agency office. They entered the administrative center on June 10, where the following day they were said to have carried out widespread burning of houses and public and commercial buildings. About sixty civilians who had taken refuge in outlying regions of Yakaolang were reportedly arrested, and their whereabouts remain unknown.

The Taliban's Bakhtar Information Agency reported on June 10 that Mullah Dadullah, a senior Taliban field commander, was in charge of what it termed a "mopping up" operation in central Yakaolang. Dadullah, whose presence in the district was confirmed by other sources, leads a unit that includes a high proportion of foreign nationals. Many of these fighters are affiliated with extremist Sunni Muslim movements, compounding the security concerns for the civilians remaining in Yakaolang, an overwhelmingly Shi'a district.

A large majority of Yakaolang's population of 60,000 - as much as 90 percent in some villages -was already displaced by the time Taliban forces retook the district on June 10, a result of continued fighting between the warring factions and the arrests and killings of civilians during the Taliban occupation in January. A majority of the residents have relocated to neighboring districts in the Hazarajat region, where they remain without humanitarian assistance. The office of the U.N. Coordinator for Afghanistan announced last month that Taliban authorities had repeatedly blocked humanitarian access to communities in need of assistance, particularly in Hazarajat.

"The Taliban administration must allow the unimpeded delivery of aid to all internally displaced persons, regardless of their region of origin or the reasons for their flight," Jones said.

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