Afghans probe aid medic killings

2010-08-08 18:17

Kabul - Police on Sunday were investigating the killing of eight foreign medics, including six Americans, shot dead in remote northern Afghanistan, as US authorities flew the bodies back to the capital.

The bullet-riddled bodies of five men, all Americans, and three women, an American, a German and a Briton, were found in the northeastern province of Badakhshan on Friday, according to the provincial police chief.

Two Afghans were also killed in the attack and one survived.

"The interior ministry has started a thorough investigation of the unfortunate Badakhshan killings," ministry spokesperson Zemarai Bashary told AFP.

"At this stage it is premature to say who has carried out the attack, who they are affiliated with or what their motives were," he said.

The team of volunteer medics were returning with their driver from a medical camp in neighbouring Nuristan province when they were attacked, said Dirk Frans, director of the Kabul-based International Assistance Mission (IAM).

The US embassy flew the bodies back to Kabul on Sunday to be formally identified, spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said in an emailed statement.

Tragic attack

She said consular staff, FBI agents, Afghan authorities and British and German embassy officials were working to identify the victims of the "tragic attack".

There were competing theories over the motive, with police saying it was likely a robbery, while two militant groups claimed responsibility, said Frans.

Frans said a militant group known to operate in the northern region, Hizb-e-Islami, first said it had carried out the killings.

But the Taliban also claimed responsibility, saying first that the medics were Christian missionaries and later accusing them of working as military spies.

"The whole thing is still very confusing. We are of course going to wait for the official investigation and see what comes out of that," Frans told AFP.

Badakhshan provincial police chief Aqa Noor Kintoz said the group had been lined up and shot in dense forest, according to the testimony of the Afghan driver, who was the sole survivor.

"Their money and belongings were all stolen," said Kintoz.

Muslim survived

He said the group had been travelling unarmed in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, avoiding a dangerous path through Nuristan by driving through Badakhshan, where there have been few insurgent attacks.

The survivor, Saifullah, was being held by police as a witness, said Frans, adding that he had been a "faithful worker" for IAM for four years and there was "no suspicion at all" of his involvement.

Saifullah apparently escaped death by reading verses of the Koran, prompting the men to realise he was a Muslim and releasing him.

Northeast Afghanistan has been regarded as largely free of the Taliban-led insurgency blighting other parts of the country.

Frans said many of the dead would be buried in a Christian cemetery in central Kabul because all but one of the foreign medics had been living in Afghanistan full-time.

IAM, a Christian volunteer organisation, had been working in Afghanistan through royal, communist and Taliban rule and would continue despite the killings, Frans said.

"There has never been any threats against us. If there were threats, we would not have gone."

IAM said two of the victims were Briton Karen Woo and American Tom Little, who had lived in Afghanistan since the mid-1970s and raised his family in Kabul.

Not without risk

Woo, a 36-year-old doctor, was thought to have quit her job with a private healthcare firm in London to work in Afghanistan.

British media said she had been due to get married in two weeks' time.

Woo had written on the charity's blog that she would be acting as the team doctor and running mother and child clinics.

"The expedition will require a lot of physical and mental resolve and will not be without risk but ultimately, I believe that the provision of medical treatment is of fundamental importance and that the effort is worth it in order to assist those that need it most," she said.

IAM said it has been operating in the country since 1966, providing eye care to Afghans, running eye hospitals in the main cities.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force, which is fighting the Taliban-led insurgency, condemned the killings.

"Isaf is condemning the violence that led to this tragic, sad incident, but primarily the safety and security on the roads from Nuristan to Badakhshan is the responsibility of Afghanistan," said spokesperson Brigadier-General Josef Blotz.

"I hope in the future with a higher number of Afghan national security forces things like these will not happen again."