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Journalists fall prey to Afghan dangers

Associated Press

"Bad News," announced a handwritten letter among the usual notices to journalists taped to the Intercontinental Hotel ballroom door. Most of the posted notes, in fact, were in the same grim vein.

The letter, from Swedish TV4 journalists, told how cameraman Ulf Stroemberg, 42, was shot to death early Tuesday by robbers in Taloqan. He was the eighth journalist killed in Afghanistan in two weeks.

A nearby notice headlined, "HELP!" was from a distressed colleague seeking information about the robbery and killings of four journalists a week earlier near Kabul on the treacherous road from Jalalabad.

On Nov. 11, two French radio reporters and a German magazine writer were cut down by Taliban troops as they rode atop a Northern Alliance armored car to visit what they thought was an overrun position.

In yet another incident, Ken Hechtman, a freelance reporter writing for the Montreal Mirror, sent a message to other correspondents that he was being held in chains by the Taliban in Kandahar. Alastair Sutherland, the Montreal Mirror editor, said that Hechtman was taken prisoner Tuesday and that the identity of his captors was unclear.

After Stroemberg's slaying, The Associated Press and several other Western news organizations withdrew staff from parts of northern Afghanistan. Authorities in Tajikistan said about 40 foreign journalists crossed the border from Afghanistan on Tuesday.

The British Broadcasting Corp. said it pulled its news teams out of Taloqan in northern Afghanistan on Tuesday, "in the light of the killing and general increase of tension and violence in the area."

The crews, who have gone to Tajikistan, would have been leaving soon anyway, as their primary job in the area was to cover the fall of Kunduz, and that already happened, the BBC said.

Although few veteran reporters characterize Afghanistan coverage as more dangerous than other recent war situations, most agree that extreme geography and unruly armed bands pose a serious threat.

"This is a difficult country to comprehend and work in," said Robert Nickelsburg, a Time magazine photographer who has covered Afghanistan since 1987. "Often it is purely a matter of luck -- and your driver."

Uncounted hundreds of newspeople are based in Kabul, and others are in Mazar-e Sharif, Taloqan and other northern towns. As allied troops move in on Kandahar in the south, many reporters take risks to get closer to the story.

Keith Richburg, a Washington Post reporter who for years has covered mayhem in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, agreed with Nickelsburg.

"I don't think this is as dangerous as Somalia, where you couldn't leave your hotel without worrying what you'd find," he said. But, he added, travel outside cities is a high risk.

"Any three guys with guns can stretch a rope across the road and call it a checkpoint," he said. "By the time you approach them, and they find out who you are, it is too late."

Richburg was to have traveled from the eastern city of Jalalabad to the capital, Kabul, behind the eight-car convoy that four journalists were traveling in when they were ambushed and killed last week by armed bandits. His car drove past the spot hours later, unaware that his colleagues -- two from the Reuters news agency, one from the Italian daily Corriere della Sera and one from the Spanish newspaper El Mundo -- had been killed.

"It is a combination of incredibly bad luck, inexperienced journalists and pure banditry," said Ron Haviv, a photographer with the agency VII who has survived years of close encounters in the Balkans and beyond.

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