An Afghan policeman checks the trunk of a car on Saturday at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif, in Balkh province, some 186 miles north of Kabul. (Mustafa Najafizada/AP)

Unknown gunmen executed 13 people traveling in northern Afghanistan on Saturday, according to a local Afghan official.

The attack took place in Balkh province, a relatively peaceful region in northern Afghanistan.

Aside from a lone soldier traveling with the group, all of the victims were civilians belonging to the ethnic Hazara minority, the official said.

The attack began when masked gunmen stopped two small sedans in Zari district and proceeded to drag male passengers out of the cars and shoot them, said Abdul Razaq Qaderi, the deputy police chief of Balkh.

“They spared one woman who was in one of the vehicles,” he added, noting that officials were trying to determine who was responsible for the attack.

Taliban activities have been observed in the area in the past, but the group released a statement denying any involvement in the attack.

Hazaras make up the third largest ethnicity in Afghanistan. As Shiites, they are also a religious minority in Sunni-majority Afghanistan.

Long persecuted in Afghanistan, Hazaras have undergone a collective revival since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. But in recent years, they have also been the targets of numerous attacks.

In February, 31 Hazaras were abducted in the southern province of Zabul. Three months later, 19 of the abductees were released, but the fate of the rest of the group remains unknown.

In a similar attack last year, 14 Hazara civilians were killed by unknown gunmen in the central province of Ghor.

In one of the deadliest sectarian attacks in Afghanistan, 56 Shiite worshipers — most of them Hazaras — were killed in Kabul when a suicide bomber targeted a Shiite shrine on the holy day of Ashura in 2011.

The attack arrived on the same day that President Ashraf Ghani unveiled plans for luring investment to the war-torn country at a gathering of donors in Kabul that included senior Afghan officials, ambassadors and nongovernmental organizations. The goal, he told those in attendance, is to shift Afghanistan from an economy dependent upon foreign aid to one sustained by “commercial investment, job creation and trade.”

“Rebuilding Afghanistan is going to be a long-term endeavour,” Ghani said. “Afghanistan is a wounded country. Widespread unemployment, a violent insurgency and the advance of extremism across the region are increasing the likelihood that (our) economic reform agenda will be undone by political unrest.”