Afghans Storm Agha Khan Aid Office, Beat Staff

Hundreds of irate Afghans attacked an aid agency run by the spiritual leader of the Ismaili sect after rumors spread the office was involved in converting majority Sunni Muslims to Ismaili beliefs, officials said.

Several local and foreign employees of the Agha Khan Development Network were beaten during Tuesday's attack in Faizabad, capital of Badakhshan province, but no one was badly hurt, said the government officials, who did not want to be identified.

They said the attack was provoked by rumors the agency was using its aid projects to convert Sunni Muslims.

But a senior official of the aid agency, who also did not want to be identified by name, said the attack was the result of a misunderstanding involving two local women employees.

He said the women had become delirious after working to fortify wheat in a poorly aired room and a rumor spread that they had been deliberately drugged and sexually assaulted.

"Both the women and the hospital said this was not true, but the rumor spread like wildfire," he said.

He said a large crowd gathered and began hurling stones at the office and a group tried to set fire to the building.

Police intervened to disperse the attackers, and no serious injuries were reported.

Ismailis, who follow a Shia sect of Islam, are a small minority in Afghanistan. Some live in remote areas of Badakhshan, an impoverished mountainous region near the border with Tajikistan, where the sect has tens of thousands of followers.

The sect is looked down upon by some Hardline Sunni clerics and its followers were persecuted during the rule of the Hardline Taliban until 2001. Since U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban, the Agha Khan has set up a range of aid projects in the country and has launched the second-largest mobile telephone company, called Roshan.