Taliban fighters have seized 18 Afghan mine clearing experts and threatened to kill them if investigations suggest they are working for US-led forces in the country, officials and the insurgents said on yesterday.
The group was seized along with four specialist mine-sniffing dogs, which can take years to train, on Saturday in the Andar district of Ghazni Province, part of the eastern and southern "badlands" where the Taliban are at their strongest.
"Our investigation is on-going and after the investigation we will decide what to do," Taliban commander Mullah Safiullah said by satellite phone.
Shohab Hakimi, Mine Detection Dog Center (MDC) head said nine of his staff and nine others from the Mine Clearance Planning Agency (MCPA) were seized at gunpoint.
"For the last 18 years they have worked in Afghanistan for Afghanistan," he said, appealing to the Taliban to release the de-miners.
Afghanistan remains one of the mostly heavily mined countries in the world, a legacy of decades of conflict as well as the 10-year Soviet occupation.
A number of non-governmental organizations have mine-clearing operations in the country, and their activities have been well supported at home and in the West following the international campaign spearheaded by the late Princess Diana.
Hakimi said that the Taliban's leader, Mullah Omar, had previously given mine clearers "protected status" and that he hoped this ruling would still apply.
"If senior Taliban leaders know about this, then I am sure it can be resolved," Hakimi said, adding that the Taliban had made no demands for their release.
"They warned that they would kill them if we involved foreign forces," he said.
Taliban fighters have executed a number of foreigners they have accused of spying or working for the US-led foreign forces since their overthrow in December 2001.
The Taliban has now re-grouped in the south and east -- the poppy-producing regions responsible for more than 90 percent of the world's heroin -- and are engaged in daily clashes with US-led and Afghan troops as summer heralds an increase in fighting.
Hundreds of Taliban fighters and their allies have been killed in fighting this year as well as an increasing number of civilians caught up in the clashes.
More than 230 civilians have been killed this year alone during operations by foreign and Afghan forces, according to an umbrella body for aid groups in Afghanistan.
In light of the number of civilian casualties, Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday accused the NATO- and US-led militaries of "indiscriminate and unprecise" operations, extreme use of force and not coordinating their actions with the government.
The NATO force in Afghanistan said yesterday that Karzai was right to be angry about the civilian casualties in its military operations, and it needed to improve the way it worked.
"I feel that president Karzai is right, he has reason to be upset," said Nicholas Lunt, civilian spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
"We have to improve the way we are operating," he said.
"But let's make clear that no ISAF soldier intends to kill civilians. That's not the case with Taliban. They deliberately kill civilians," he said.
The US-led coalition would not comment.
Most civilian casualties that occur in Afghanistan are caused by insurgent attacks, with the Taliban relying on suicide and roadside bombings.
But ordinary people are also killed in military action against the militants who are accused of using civilians as "human shields" by attacking troops.
Karzai said action from foreign forces had resulted in the killing of about 90 civilians just in the past 10 days.
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