KABUL, Afghanistan — An Afghan police officer turned his weapon on two Western journalists Friday, killing one and wounding the other inside a security forces compound in eastern Afghanistan on the eve of the country's closely watched presidential election.
Anja Niedringhaus, 48, a German and a veteran photographer for Associated Press, was killed instantly, and AP correspondent Kathy Gannon was shot three times, sustaining wrist and shoulder wounds, the news agency said. Gannon, 60, a Canadian who has covered Afghanistan for nearly three decades, was evacuated to the U.S. military base at Bagram and was reported to be in stable condition.
The shooting, the latest in a series of deadly attacks on journalists and Westerners in Afghanistan, and came hours before polls were to open for an election Saturday that the Taliban has vowed to derail with violence. Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, the Taliban carried out several major attacks before the election, which it has condemned as a U.S.-sponsored plot.
The journalists were on assignment in Khowst, a violent province along the border with Pakistan, where they were waiting in a local police headquarters compound with a convoy of election workers who were delivering ballots to outlying areas. They were in their own car with an interpreter and driver, and the convoy was being guarded by Afghan soldiers and police, AP said.
Officials in Khowst identified the shooter as a police platoon commander named Naqibullah who was part of the convoy's security detail. As the convoy was waiting to depart from the Tani district police headquarters, Naqibullah walked up to the car, yelled "God is great" and fired his AK-47 rifle into the back seat, where the journalists were sitting, officials said.
The platoon commander immediately surrendered to other officers and was in police custody, Afghan officials and AP said.
The Afghan Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, condemned the shooting "in the strongest terms." U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham called it a "senseless act of violence."
A spokesman for the provincial governor in Khowst, Mubariz Zadran, said officials were investigating the officer's motive. Taliban insurgents have infiltrated Afghan police and army units many times to stage deadly attacks on U.S. and international security personnel, but those attacks have sharply declined from their peak in 2012, particularly after the U.S.-led coalition took steps to reduce interaction with Afghan forces.
Shortly after the shooting, in a village in the district, a bomb exploded in a mosque that was to be used as a polling center Saturday. A police officer and a civilian were killed and four people were injured, said Faizullah Ghairat, the police chief in Khowst province.
With President Hamid Karzai leaving office because of term limits, the election is a watershed moment in Afghanistan, a critical test of whether the country can manage a democratic transfer of power as U.S. and international troops prepare to withdraw most of their forces by the end of the year. Nearly 200,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers have deployed nationwide to safeguard the polls amid fear of a rerun of the last election, in 2009, which was marred by insurgent attacks and widespread vote-rigging.
This year, Taliban militants have targeted election offices in Kabul, the capital, and Afghan political activists in the provinces. But there also has been a rising number of deadly incidents involving Westerners and journalists.
Last month, Swedish-British journalist Nils Horner was killed on a street in Kabul by unknown gunmen. Two weeks ago, Sardar Ahmad, an Afghan journalist working for Agence France-Presse news agency was fatally shot along with his wife and two of his children in a complex Taliban assault on the luxury Kabul Serena Hotel, which the Taliban said it targeted because it is popular with foreigners.
Niedringhaus was a widely admired war photographer who covered conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, the Palestinian territories and Pakistan. An AP staff photographer since 2002, she shared in the news agency's 2005 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography from Iraq, and the same year received the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation.
Gannon, based in Islamabad, Pakistan, has been reporting from Afghanistan since the mid-1980s and was one of the few Western reporters who continued to travel regularly to the country when it was ruled by the Taliban.
"Anja and Kathy together have spent years in Afghanistan covering the conflict and the people there. Anja was a vibrant, dynamic journalist well-loved for her insightful photographs, her warm heart and joy for life. We are heartbroken at her loss," AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said.
Special correspondent Hashmat Baktash contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times