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Slaughter memories stir Afghan ire at US-Taliban prisoner swap

A video screen grab shows Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl being loaded into a helicopter after Taliban fighters released him in eastern Afghanistan.

KABUL — Mohammad Ali walked through a desert in northern Afghanistan early one morning in 2000 searching for his two brothers. He found them in an open grave with their heads chopped off, lying alongside more than a dozen corpses.

Ali's siblings were among hundreds of Shiite Muslims killed by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. The purge was ordered in part by Mullah Norullah Noori and other provincial governors, according to Afghanistan's official human rights body. Noori was one of five Taliban detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, released last week in exchange for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

"America released the murderers of my brothers and tens of thousands others," Ali, 52, said in an interview at his home in the capital of Kabul, surrounded by his four sons. "Shame on you, America."

As President Barack Obama faces more questions at home about the decision to release prisoners for a soldier who may have abandoned his unit, some Afghans are fuming. The country's nascent police and army are battling to quash a Taliban insurgency that the United Nations says killed about 3,000 Afghan civilians last year as the U.S. prepares to withdraw almost all of its troops by 2017.

"They are in positions to persuade people to join the Taliban and spread violence in Afghanistan," Jawid Kohistani, a former intelligence officer who runs a minor political party, said by phone, referring to the released prisoners. "They were involved in creating Taliban militants — they are Taliban creators."

U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham told reporters on June 3 that the released Taliban figures don't pose any threat to Afghan security because they will stay for a year in Qatar, which helped broker the deal. Besides Noori, those set free included former Taliban cabinet ministers Khairullah Khairkhawa, Mohammad Fazl and Abdul Haq Wasiq, as well as military official Mohammed Nabi.

Since Bergdahl's release on May 31, Republican lawmakers have stepped up their attacks on the Obama administration, saying it negotiated with terrorists and failed to give Congress the legally required 30-day notification of the deal that freed Bergdahl. Scores of soldiers, veterans and others have lit up social media with postings denouncing the former prisoner for allegedly abandoning his unit in 2009.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government has also criticized the agreement and demanded the unconditional freedom of its citizens. Cunningham said that Afghanistan had been aware "for quite some time" that the detainees would go to Qatar.

"No state can transfer another country's citizen to a third country and put restrictions on their freedom," Afghanistan's foreign ministry said June 1 in an emailed statement.

The Afghanistan High Peace Council, a body created by Karzai in 2010 to facilitate peace talks with the Taliban, welcomed the prisoner release. Karzai's government had long requested their release to persuade the Taliban to sit down at the negotiating table.

"We should be optimistic about their release," Ismail Qasimyar, one of about 70 members on the High Peace Council, said by phone. "The release helps ensure trust building and strengthens the peace process with the Taliban militants."

On the streets of Kabul, the city's 3.3 million inhabitants were more skeptical. When the predominately Sunni Taliban ruled the city prior to the U.S. invasion in 2001, stadiums were used for public executions and Shiites were restricted from freely practicing their religion.

"Releasing the murderers of thousands of Afghans and dangerous Taliban figures for their own self benefit is showing the real face of the U.S," Ahmad Sharaf, 27, a Kabul University student, said in an interview. "The U.S. is losing the hearts and minds of Afghans."

Mohammad Ali lived in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, when his brothers — 22 and 25 years of age at the time — were executed by the Taliban. Noori was among Taliban leaders who ordered the massacre of Shiites, Rafiullah Bidar, a spokesman for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said in a phone interview.

Ali managed to escape and fled across the border into Pakistan. He only returned to Afghanistan two years after U.S.- led forces toppled the Taliban.

"When I heard their release from news, my blood began to boil," Ali said. "I had a strong feeling to take a weapon and go after them."
 

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