Taliban kills 10 medical aid workers in northern Afghanistan
KABUL -- Gunmen killed 10 members of a medical team, including six Americans, traveling in the rugged mountains of northern Afghanistan, demonstrating the reach of insurgents far from their traditional havens and shocking the expatriate community here.
The attack was one of the deadliest on civilian aid workers since the war began in 2001. That it occurred in Badakhshan province, a scenic mountain redoubt considered a peaceful refuge from the war, added to growing concern that the Taliban has seized on northern Afghanistan as its latest front.
The dead have not been officially identified, and the bodies not yet returned to Kabul, but Afghan and Western officials said the victims were thought to be members of a medical team working with a Christian charity group that has decades of experience in Afghanistan. That team, from the International Assistance Mission, lost contact with its office in Kabul on Wednesday, two days before the attack, said Dirk Frans, the group's executive director.
"We've got a team that has gone missing, and then there are 10 people found dead. At the moment we're working on the assumption that this is the same team," Frans said.
The Taliban quickly asserted responsibility for the killings, saying the medical workers were "foreign spies" and were spreading Christianity. But police officials have not ruled out robbery as a motive, as the victims were stripped of their belongings after they were shot.
The team members -- six Americans, one German, one Briton and four Afghans -- were returning from neighboring Nurestan province, where they had spent several days administering eye care to impoverished villagers. They were traveling unarmed and without security guards, Frans said.
The dead are thought to include the team's leader, Tom Little, an optometrist from New York who had worked in Afghanistan over the past four decades. Little, a fluent Dari speaker, had been thrown out of the country by the Taliban in 2001 during a crackdown on Christian aid groups. Three of the victims are thought to be women, including Karen Woo, a British surgeon who had written on her blog about the possible risks of traveling to the area.
Two of the Afghans were unharmed.
The group is registered as a Christian nonprofit organization. Although its members do not shy away from this affiliation in this conservative Muslim country, Frans and others said they do not proselytize. In their work since 1966 on health and economic development projects, under King Zahir Shah, the Russians, the mujaheddin government and the Taliban, Frans said, "all along we've been known as a Christian organization. That has been a nonissue."
"This is truly a bedrock institution in Afghanistan," said Andy M.A. Campbell, the Afghanistan country director for the National Democratic Institute. "They have been around for decades."
Others who have worked with the group described it as culturally sensitive to the Muslim values of Afghanistan and staffed by foreigners committed to long-term development work in the country. "This is not a Mickey Mouse organization," said a person who has worked for and evaluated the organization's projects in the past.
The Taliban has targeted foreign aid workers in the past but such attacks are relatively rare, and insurgents have allowed some aid groups safe passage into areas they control. In August 2008, gunmen killed three women from the International Rescue Committee and their Afghan driver in Logar province. Four years earlier, 11 Chinese road workers were shot to death in Kunduz province.