KANDAHAR -- Afghan peace protesters marching through Taliban territory have been detained by the militants, two supporters of the movement told AFP on Tuesday (June 4).
The People's Peace Movement, also known as the Helmand Peace Convoy, attracted international attention last year when it walked across Afghanistan in an attempt to reduce violence across the country.
The movement began as a 50-day sit-in in Lashkargah, the capital of Helmand Province, after a deadly bombing there last March. In May 2018, members of the movement took to the road, marching to Kabul to raise awareness for peace and demand that the Taliban stop their violence.
About 30 members of the People's Peace Movement started a new walk on May 27, setting out again from Lashkargah.
According to Abdul Malik Hamdard, a peace march supporter, the Taliban forced four members of the group to accompany them in vehicles on Sunday (June 2) night as they crossed into Taliban territory in the south of the country.
Then on Monday (June 3), Taliban fighters returned and took the rest of the group, except for a few older members, he added.
About 25 marchers were detained in total, he said.
"Initially [the Taliban] told us that 'we will talk to them,'" Hamdard said. "We have had no news from them since then."
After refusing to comment about the marchers' plight for more than 36 hours, the Taliban on Tuesday released photos of four of the group including its leader, Iqbal Khyber, and said the men were safe and would not be harmed.
Taliban's purpose unknown
"We do not know for what purpose the Taliban fighters have taken our members," said Bacha Khan Muladad, another supporter. "We don't know whether they have been taken hostage or are negotiating with them."
Muladad added he had been unable to contact any of the members directly because their phones were switched off.
Bismillah Watandost, the marchers' spokesman, who is now among the detained group, last week told AFP that the group aimed to express to the Taliban the pain and suffering of Afghans and to call for a ceasefire over the festival of Eid, which began Tuesday.
The group had initially planned to march to Musa Qala, a Taliban stronghold situated about 130km from Lashkargah.
According to the United Nations, almost 4,000 civilians -- including more than 900 children -- were killed in Afghanistan last year, with more than 7,000 wounded.