The government of Afghanistan said Monday it had secured the release of 19 of 31 travelers who were kidnapped from a bus in the southern province of Zabul in February.
President Ashraf Ghani confirmed the release of the passengers, mainly Shiite Muslim members of the minority Hazara ethnic group, in a news conference. Ghani said “not one penny was spent … not one person handed over” in exchange for the passengers.
But local officials disputed that account, saying the captives were freed in exchange for the release of about two dozen detainees in Afghan custody.
The head of the provincial council in the eastern province of Ghazni, Khaliq Dad Akbari, told local media that the Afghan government had agreed to release 22 detainees of Uzbek origin, including some women.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a militant group that has long been allied with Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, has been described as increasing its activity in Afghanistan’s northern provinces.
The kidnapping in February garnered headlines because some officials in Zabul attributed it to fighters loyal to Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that has overtaken large stretches of Iraq and Syria and has been attempting to establish a foothold in Afghanistan.
That account was not confirmed, and suspicion has since fallen on the Taliban and the Uzbek movement.
The whereabouts of the remaining 12 passengers were not immediately known.
The Afghan government had been actively working to free the prisoners and carried out military operations — including some backed by U.S. aerial surveillance — in an effort to locate them, according to an Afghan official with knowledge of the matter. Speaking to the media last month, Ghani said the government had spent $6 million in the effort to free the passengers.
Latifi is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Shashank Bengali in Mumbai, India contributed to this report.
For more news from South Asia, follow @SBengali on Twitter