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MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Gunmen in Afghanistan kidnapped 52 farmers on Wednesday, most of them members of the minority Uzbek community in the remote northern province of Jowzjan, regional officials said, but the motive for the abductions was not immediately clear.
Afghanistan's once-stable north has become a hotbed of kidnappings and shootings in recent years, as the militant Taliban gains ground, along with small groups loyal to Islamic State, mostly defectors from the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.
The men seized in Wednesday's incident were kidnapped from three villages in the district of Darz Ab in Jowzjan, while they were at work on their land.
Provincial police blamed Taliban fighters that control most of the district.
"The Taliban is responsible for this act, as they are leading those areas," said Mohammad Riza Ghori, a spokesman for the police chief of Jowzjan.
"A number of elders from Darz Ab, including the police chief, are trying to talk to the Taliban to release these people, and if this does not work, we will launch an operation."
He did not give further details of plans for such a rescue operation, however.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said he was aware of the report, but could not confirm it as he was gathering information.
Jowzjan is the same province where gunmen last week killed six employees of the International Committee of the Red Cross as they helped deliver emergency relief after heavy snow storms.
Two workers were also kidnapped in that attack, which prompted the ICRC to suspend operations in Afghanistan.
Regional officials blamed last week's attack on Islamic State fighters and the Taliban denied involvement.
However, police spokesman Ghori said there was no Islamic State presence in the area where the farmers were kidnapped, only Taliban.
Reporting by Abdul Matin Sahak in Mazar-I-Sharif. Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Clarence Fernandez