Eight foreign medics shot dead in Afghanistan

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Gunmen shot dead eight foreign medical aid workers in the remote forests of north Afghanistan, their charity said Saturday as the Taliban claimed it killed them for being "Christian missionaries".

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, said the provincial police chief.

Two Afghans were also killed and two survived. They were part of a 12-member team of volunteer medics returning from a medical camp in neighbouring Nuristan province, said International Assistance Mission (IAM) director Dirk Frans.

Despite the Taliban claim, Frans said police had told him that robbery was the likely motive for the killings.

Frans said the group had been in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, avoiding a dangerous path through Nuristan by driving through Badakhshan province, where there have been few insurgent attacks.

"They were killed on their way back. They had no guns and no security because we come at the communities' invitation and they take care of us," Frans told AFP.

"The last call we had was on Wednesday evening.... There has never been any threats against us. If there were threats, we would not have gone," he said, adding that the organisation would continue its activities.

"We have been working under the king, the communists and the Taliban, and they know what we do," he said.

Badakhshan provincial police chief Aqa Noor Kintoz said the group had been lined up and shot in dense forest, according to the testimony of an Afghan survivor.

The Taliban later claimed responsibility.

"Yesterday at around 8:00 am, one of our patrols confronted a group of foreigners. They were Christian missionaries and we killed them all," said Zabihullah Mujahed, a spokesman for the Taliban.

Frans denied the Taliban's claim that the group carried Bibles in the local language Dari.

On Saturday a Briton was named among the dead by IAM as Karen Woo, a 36-year-old doctor thought to have quit her job with a private healthcare firm in London so she could work in Afghanistan.

Woo had earlier written on the charity's blog that she would be acting as the team doctor and running mother and child clinics.

She added: "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."

The British Foreign Office said it could not confirm if she was among the dead. The German government said it believed there was one German national killed "according to the information available".

The US embassy in Kabul said it still could not confirm the number of US fatalities but said it had reports of "several" Americans among them.

A Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the US embassy would be organising the return of the bodies to Kabul where they would be formally identified.

IAM, which says its headquarters are in Kabul and has been in the country since 1966, says it provides the majority of eye care available to Afghans, running eye hospitals in Kabul, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar.

Kintoz said the medics were shot by armed men in a remote area of Badakhshan, according to the testimony of "Saifullah", an Afghan survivor.

"They were confronted by a group of armed men who lined them up and shot them. Their money and belongings were all stolen," said Kintoz.

He said that according to Saifullah's testimony he had escaped death by reading verses of the Koran, prompting the men to realise he was a Muslim and release him in neighbouring Nuristan.

The police chief said local villagers had warned the group not to enter the forested area, but they had insisted they would be safe because they were doctors, according to Saifullah's statement.

Northeast Afghanistan has been regarded as largely free of the Taliban-led insurgency troubling other parts of the country.

In May the Afghan government suspended two Christian aid organisations -- Church Aid of Norway and Church World Service of the United States -- after a TV show reported they were proselytising, which is illegal in the devoutly Islamic country.

In Afghanistan's restive south, meanwhile, officials said Saturday that a candidate in upcoming parliamentary elections had been killed while two NATO soldiers died in a separate bomb attack.

© 2010 AFP

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