Their crime was falling in love. Their punishment: death by firing squad. Bound and blindfolded, a young couple were shot at close range in southern Afghanistan - for daring to elope.

Abdul Aziz was 21 years old. The girl he ran off with was just 19. Her name, Gul Pecha, means flower.

Officials said the pair were tried by a Taleban court, found guilty of "immoral acts" and sentenced to death. The Taleban denied involvement.

Administrators say the couple's parents were complicit in their fate. But that has not been confirmed.

Gul and Abdul were both from Lukhi village, in Nimroz province. Their home district borders Helmand, where a large number of Western troops are based.

They were gunned down, together, on Tuesday. Witnesses said they were shot in front of a local mob by men with AK47 assault rifles.

"They had fled their homes to the neighbouring village, because their parents refused to let them marry," said Nimroz's Governor, Ghullam Dastagir Azad. "Their parents tracked them down and handed them over to the Taleban."

Some officials claimed the couple hoped to flee across the border, to Iran.

The provincial police chief, Jabar Pardeli, said they were held prisoner for four days in Lukhi while a council of clerics argued about their fate.

Once their case was settled, execution was swift and visible. Senior human rights workers said the trial suggested the presence of a Taleban shadow government. "That area is totally under the control of the Taleban," said Zaghrulla Baluch, a tribal elder from the province.

Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a Taleban spokesman, insisted the insurgents were not involved.

Nimroz is largely untouched by international or Afghan troops. Pardeli, the police chief, admitted Lukhi is beyond the reach of his men.

When the Taleban ruled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, they were infamous for the brutal way they implemented sharia, or Islamic law. Public executions were commonplace. But in many parts of the countryside, conservative moral codes condone similar punishments.