A U.N. team flew to the central Afghan town of Bamian on Sunday to investigate local reports that three mass graves containing victims of a Taliban massacre late last year had been uncovered.
Bamian residents said the graves, located near the town's airport, contained bodies of ethnic Hazaras, who have a long and bloody history with the Pushtuns who dominated the Taliban. No details were available on the number of victims found, the precise dates of the killings or the circumstances.
"Representatives of the Hazara community in Bamian believe that the graves contain bodies of members of their community killed approximately one month before the fall of the Taliban," said U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva.
U.N. officials, who traveled to the area with a representative of Afghanistan's interim government, said they would prepare a report before releasing any public statement on their findings.
Bamian province, a stronghold of ethnic Hazaras, has been the site of several massacres in recent years. But the graves reported to the United Nations on Friday were previously unknown.
Afghanistan's population is weary of war and longs for peace, but one of the biggest threats to stability is bitter rivalry among ethnic groups.
Hazaras, who make up 19% of Afghanistan's population, are Shiite Muslims, while the majority of Afghans are Sunni. The Taliban frequently targeted Hazaras in areas such as Bamian province and Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, but Hazaras also have massacred Pushtuns at various times.
De Almeida e Silva said the bodies at the Bamian site, about 50 miles northwest of Kabul, the capital, had not been exhumed. Community leaders were eager to bring the mass graves to international light, he said, but at the same time were anxious to rebury the victims as quickly as possible for religious reasons.
One of the U.N. mission's tasks was to discover how long the local community was willing to delay reburial to permit a fuller investigation.
The U.N. has reported that several hundred villagers, along with hospital staff and representatives of international organizations, were killed in Yakaolang, in western Bamian province, in January and February 2001. Local Hazara commanders later claimed to have intercepted radio messages in which Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar personally authorized the killings.
Men were rounded up and shot outside a relief agency, near a hospital and behind a mosque, among other sites, according to the U.N. report. A number of mass graves were found in the area.
Hazaras also were targeted in 1998, when about 50 elderly men who had surrendered to the Taliban reportedly were slain.
The United Nations also has recorded recent cases in which Hazaras and others have carried out reprisal killings against Pushtuns for their support of the Taliban.
In Bargah, in northern Afghanistan, 37 Pushtuns reportedly were slain by Hazaras in early December. The latest graves in Bamian date from a similar time, around November or December, according to De Almeida e Silva.
Some of the worst ethnic killings have taken place in or near Mazar-i-Sharif, where mass graves have been discovered. In 1997, Hazara militias massacred Taliban members, and the following year the Taliban swept back into the city, massacring thousands of Hazaras and Uzbeks.