KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban insurgents killed 17 Afghan civilians Sunday and beheaded as many as 15 of them in the southern province of Helmand, officials said Monday. But the circumstance of their deaths was sharply disputed.
One version said theyd been killed because theyd attended a party where women danced with men. But others scoffed at the idea, saying women would not have been dancing in such a conservative area of Afghanistan.
It is not possible to sing a song in a Taliban-controlled area let alone have dancing, and especially women dancing, said Daoud Ahmadi, a spokesman for Helmands governor.
Even the location of the killings was uncertain. Afghanistans Interior Ministry said in a statement that armed Taliban had opened fire and beheaded the civilians including two women in Helmands Kajaki district, a version with which Ahmadi agreed.
But Haji Abdul Wahab, a tribal elder from the neighboring Musa Qala district, told McClatchy that the killings had occurred in his district, not Kajaki, though he, too, dismissed the idea that the victims were at a late-night celebration with music and dancing.
It is not possible to have a dancing party in conservative Helmand province, Wahab said. Helmand is a Pashtun province, and its taboo to have women dancing here. Pashtuns are the dominant ethnic group in the region.
Still, the killings prompted widespread condemnation among local and foreign officials. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan described the slayings of the 17 civilians as gruesome and reprehensible.
This criminal act is unjustifiable and totally disregards the sanctity of human life, the mission said a statement.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai also condemned what a statement from his office called a massacre and an unforgiveable act.
U.S. Marine Gen. John R. Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, as the NATO coalition in Afghanistan is formally known, called the killers cowards who had targeted innocent men and women.
This callous act clearly demonstrates the insurgents willingness to stop at nothing in terrorizing civilians, Allen said.
But what precisely had happened remained unknown. Ahmadi said that he could not confirm how many of the victims had been beheaded and how many shot, and he said the motive behind the killings was not clear. He said that Afghan intelligence agencies were trying to gather accurate information, and that the dance party rumor was just one of many
There was also a rumor this morning that the murdered people were accused of spying for the government that that is why they were killed, he said. There was a rumor that it was a boys party in which the boys had worn girls dresses and were dancing. There was another rumor that these people were killed in retaliation for the death of Talibans commanders. These were all rumors.
Wahab, the Musa Qala tribal elder, said that the claims that the killings were sparked by a dance party were propaganda and absolutely false.
In an interview with McClatchy, he offered what arguably may be the most plausible account of the motives behind the killings. He said that 15 of those murdered were male prisoners of the Taliban related to Afghan government officials and were beheaded in retaliation after three Taliban commanders were killed a few days ago at Musa Qala in a coalition airstrike.
A statement from the Helmand governors office on Saturday had confirmed the death that day of three Taliban commanders in a coalition airstrike at Musa Qala.
While the (insurgents) were beheading the men, two women from the village, who were between 60 to 70 years old, came out of their homes and started screaming for the Taliban not to kill them, said Wahab. But the Taliban shot those two women and beheaded the 15 prisoners.
Stephenson and Safi are McClatchy special correspondents.