Afghan police probe foreign medic killings

8th August 2010, Comments 0 comments

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 spokesman 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 bodies were flown back to Kabul Sunday and formally identified with the help of Afghan, US, German and British officials, said US Embassy spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden in an emailed statement.

"We can now confirm that six Americans were among the deceased in Badakhshan," said Hayden, adding that names would not be released out of respect to the families.

The German foreign ministry said its dead national was 35-year-old woman from Saxony, eastern Germany.

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 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 and all their belongings stolen, according to the testimony of the Afghan driver, who was the sole survivor.

Kintoz 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 release 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 providing eye care to Afghans, had been working in Afghanistan through royal, communist and Taliban rule without threat and would continue despite the killings, Frans said.

"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.

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

Her fiance in Kabul said in a BBC interview that she "grabbed life by the horns".

"She went to one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan just to help people. That was the sort of girl she was. She was focused and professional," said Mark Smith.

"It was one of those crazy relationships. Nothing is normal in Afghanistan, but when we met it just made sense. You know when something is right and this was just right."

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.

© 2010 AFP

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