Taliban fighters ambushed and killed a 10-member medical team, including six Americans, as they were returning from a trip to a remote northern area to provide eye care to rural villagers, their aid organization and local officials said Saturday.
The 10 charity workers, who also included two Afghans, a German and a Briton, were found slain in remote forested area of Badakhshan province, according to provincial police and their Kabul-based group, the International Assistance Mission.
The Taliban movement claimed responsibility for the deaths, claiming those killed were spies and preachers of Christianity. The details provided in statements by spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid suggested that the killers were in fact insurgents and not bandits, who also roam freely in the area.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul could not confirm the nationalities of the six who were listed by the group as Americans, but spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said there was “reason to believe that several American citizens are among the deceased.”
The charity’s executive director, Dirk Frans, said it was still awaiting positive identification of the bodies, but that the police description matched that of its workers and their vehicles. Three of the team members were women, he said.
The attack was one of the deadliest strikes against foreign aid workers in the course of the Afghan war. It also represented the largest toll in a single episode for American civilians working in Afghanistan since a suicide bomber killed seven members of a CIA team at a base in eastern Afghanistan in December.
The deaths also pointed up the growing dangers faced by foreign aid organizations, who are regarded by the Taliban as collaborators with the Western military. Last month, gunmen and suicide bombers in June stormed the offices of the U.S.-based development group DAI in Kunduz province, also in Afghanistan’s north, killing at least five people.
The police chief in Badakhshan, Gen. Agha Nur Kamtuz, said villagers told police that the International Assistance Mission workers had been in the area for about two weeks, moving between there and neighboring Nuristan province. Heavy fighting has been taking place over the past month in parts of Nuristan between insurgents and Afghan security forces backed by Western troops.
“People told them it was dangerous,” Kamtuz said. “They said they were doctors … and no one had anything against them.”
Villagers alerted authorities after they found three bullet-riddled vehicles that belonged to the group in the forest, the police chief said.
Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said insurgents encountered the group in the Kiran Munjan district of Badakhshan and tried to arrest them on suspicion of spying. “But they tried to escape, then mujahideen attacked and killed all of them on the spot,” he said by telephone.
The International Assistance Mission, which has been working in Afghanistan since 1966, describes itself as a charitable nonprofit Christian organization. One of its major projects is a chain of eye hospitals and clinics.
In a statement posted on its website, the group condemned “this senseless killing of people who have done nothing but serve the poor.”
The charity’s medical team was led by Tom Little, an optometrist from Delmar, N.Y., who had been with the organization since its early days, Frans said. The group’s website says its expatriate workers are volunteers.