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KABUL: The Taliban's religious police have threatened to shoot women NGO workers in a northwestern province of Afghanistan if they do not wear the all-covering burqa, two staff members told AFP.

The rights of Afghans -- particularly women and girls -- have been increasingly curtailed since the Taliban returned to power in August after ousting the US-backed government.

Women are being squeezed from public life and largely barred from government jobs, while most secondary schools for girls are shut.

Two international NGO workers in rural Badghis province told AFP that the local branch of the feared Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice met with aid groups on Sunday.

Afghan women activists go into hiding after Taliban crackdown

They told us... if women staff come to the office without wearing the burqa, they will shoot them, one said, asking not to be named for safety reasons.

Women must also be accompanied to work by a male guardian, he added.

A second NGO source confirmed the warnings.

"They also said they will come to every office without prior notice to check the rules are being followed," he told AFP.

A notice to NGOs seen by AFP did not mention the threat of shooting, but did order women to cover up.

Women in deeply conservative Afghanistan generally cover their hair with scarves anyway, while the burqa -- mandatory under the Taliban's first regime, from 1996 to 2001 -- is still widely worn, particularly outside the capital Kabul.

Desperate for international recognition to unlock frozen assets, the Taliban have largely refrained from issuing national policies that provoke outrage abroad.

Provincial officials, however, have issued various guidelines and edicts based on local interpretations of Islamic law and Afghan custom.

In the capital on Friday, the Taliban staged a demonstration with around 300 men, who chanted "We want Sharia law".

Holding posters of women wearing full coverings, the crowd accused women's rights activists who have taken to the streets of being "mercenaries".

Earlier this month, posters were slapped on cafes and shops in Kabul ordering Afghan women to cover up, illustrated with an image of the burqa.

Women are banned from appearing in television dramas and must be accompanied by a male guardian on journeys between towns and cities.

Small and scattered protests have broken out demanding women's rights, which had improved slightly over the past 20 years in the patriarchal Muslim nation.

However, several activists told AFP they had gone into hiding in the capital this week after a series of raids led to the arrests of three women.

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