KABUL (Reuters) - Gunmen killed 10 medical workers, including eight foreigners, in Afghanistan’s remote northeast, police and officials said on Saturday, and the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
A Christian aid group said those killed matched descriptions of members of one of its mobile eye clinics who had been travelling in northeastern Nuristan province and were heading back to Kabul after providing medical care for local Afghans.
Dirk Frans, executive director of the International Assistance Mission (IAM), said the group had been told the bodies of eight foreigners — five men and three women — and two Afghans had been recovered.
The 12-member team had consisted of six U.S. nationals, one British citizen, a German and four Afghans. Two Afghan staff members had escaped alive, Frans told Reuters. IAM had last had contact with the team’s leader on Wednesday.
Aqa Noor Kentuz, the police chief for Badakshan province, said the “bullet-riddled” bodies were found early on Saturday.
He said they had been camping near dense forest on a tour of Nuristan and neighbouring Badakshan when they were attacked. Travel documents were found near their bodies, he said.
“Before their travel we warned them not to tour near jungles in Nuristan but they said they were doctors and no one was going to hurt them,” Kentuz said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the killings and accused the medical workers of proselytising Christianity.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters from an undisclosed location that the group had been found with bibles translated into Dari, one of Afghanistan’s two main languages.
There was no independent confirmation of any Taliban role, or that the medical workers had bibles.
Nuristan is a remote region with a growing insurgent presence as well as smugglers and bandits. U.S. forces withdrew from the province in the past year after taking heavy losses in years of battle near its Pakistan border.
One of those killed was British surgeon Karen Woo, who worked with a separate group called Bridge Afghanistan.
“We have just heard the terrible news from Afghanistan,” the group said on its website, www.bridgeafghanistan.blogspot.com. “Unfortunately Karen was part of the group that were killed whilst delivering aid and medical care in Nuristan ...”
In a post on the website she had described plans for the three week trek with the IAM team.
“I will act as the team doctor and run the mother-and-child clinics once inside Nuristan. The expedition team also includes an eye doctor and a dental surgeon,” she wrote. “The communities who live in these remote areas get no medical care at all, so we are hoping to be able to make a really big difference to the lives and livelihoods of the people that we meet there.”
The German government confirmed that a German woman was among the dead. Germany was “outraged at the appalling attack,” government spokeswoman Sabine Heimbach said in a statement.
The U.S. embassy said it had reason to believe several Americans were among those killed, but gave no further details.
Violence in Afghanistan is at its worst since U.S.-led and Afghan armed groups overthrew the Taliban in 2001.
June was the bloodiest month of the war for foreign forces in Afghanistan, with more than 100 killed. Hundreds of Afghan civilians have also been killed this year as they become caught up in the crossfire.
Jamaluddin Badr, governor of Nuristan, said the group was made up of doctors who had visited several districts in Nuristan and Badakshan, helping local Afghans.
The IAM describes itself as an “international charitable, non-profit, Christian organisation” which has been helping Afghans with health and economic development since 1966.
“At this stage we do not have many details but our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of those who are presumed killed,” it said in a statement issued on its website (www.iam-afghanistan.org/).
“This tragedy negatively impacts our ability to continue serving the Afghan people ... We hope it will not stop our work that benefits over a quarter of a million Afghans each year.”
The NATO-led force in Afghanistan said it had no involvement in the incident and had no information.
Despite a record number of foreign forces in Afghanistan, standing at some 140,000 backed by tens of thousands of Afghan forces, the Taliban have extended their campaign out of traditional power bases in the south and east into the north and elsewhere in recent years.