Afghan driver for slain medical volunteers being held by authorities

An Afghan driver for the humanitarian team that fell into a lethal ambush last week in northeastern Afghanistan is being held and questioned by Afghan authorities, who on Monday declined to say whether he was formally under arrest or suspected of colluding in the attack.

Ten of the team’s 12 members, six of them Americans, were shot dead by gunmen in remote, rugged Badakhshan province as they returned from a medical mission in neighboring Nuristan province. The Taliban claimed responsibility, accusing the group of spying and preaching Christianity.

The bodies of the U.S. nationals — which were flown to the capital Sunday along with those of two Afghans, a German and a Briton who died with them — were to be brought to the United States for autopsies as part of an FBI-assisted investigation, the group’s executive director, Dirk Frans, told reporters in Kabul on Monday.

He described the International Assistance Mission, a nonprofit Christian group that has been operating in Afghanistan since 1966, as “devastated” by the killings, one of the worst attacks on aid workers in the course of the nearly nine-year war.

Two team members survived. One Afghan assistant had left ahead of schedule because of medical problems and drove home by another route. The other, identified as Safiullah, was present for the assault. He told police he recited verses from the Muslim holy book as he pleaded for his life, and the gunmen spared him.

Frans said his group had spoken only briefly with Safiullah by phone since the killings and didn’t know whether he had been arrested or was merely being asked for a detailed account of what happened.

“He is here in Kabul, in a Ministry of Interior facility,” Frans said. “He is part of the investigation — he is one of, if not the only, witness.”

Zemari Bashary, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, refused to say whether the driver was suspected of being an accomplice to the gunmen. “We are not saying 100% that he is a criminal, but we are doing our investigation to find out more,” he said.

Asked about the driver’s account, Frans said the other two Afghan members of the group were also Muslims and would probably have recited Koranic verses as well if they believed themselves in mortal danger.

At the group’s news conference, Frans again strongly denied that the team had engaged in any proselytizing, which would be against Afghan law and run counter to agreements the organization has signed.

He said foreign members of the team probably carried personal Bibles in their own languages, but he denied the Taliban claim that they had distributed Bibles in the Afghan languages of Dari or Pashto.

He also said that while the organization understood there was a degree of risk, the decision to travel in a large and somewhat conspicuous group to a dangerous area was not made lightly. Two of the senior team members — optometrist Tom Little and longtime aid worker Dan Terry — had decades of experience in Afghanistan and were fluent in Dari.

The group also publicly identified the last of the six slain Americans as 25-year-old Brian Carderelli of Pennsylvania, who was on the trip as a general assistant and videographer.