Ten members of a medical team, including Tom Little, left and Karen Woo, were killed by militants as they were returning from providing health care in villages in northern Afghanistan, a spokesman for the team said Saturday
By Rock Nordland and Sharifullah Sahak
The New York Times
KABUL, Afghanistan — At least 10 medical personnel, including six Americans, were slain in northern Afghanistan, officials confirmed Saturday.
The Taliban, through one of its spokesmen, claimed responsibility for the killings.
The workers, who were on an expedition to bring eye care and other medical services to remote areas, were found shot to death in a mountainous area of Badakhshan Province, according to the provincial police chief, Aka Noor Kentoz.
The International Assistance Mission said six of the dead were Americans, one was German and one was British. Dirk Frans, the executive director of the I.A.M., said the team was headed by Tom Little, an American opthamologist with four decades experience in Afghanistan and a fluent Dari speaker.
The bodies were found in a remote dense forest
in the northern province of Badakhshan
“We have reason to believe that several American citizens are among the deceased,” said a spokeswoman for the American embassy, Caitlin Hayden. “We cannot confirm any details at this point, but are actively working with local authorities to learn more about the identities and nationalities of these individuals.”
Mr. Frans said the team numbered 12, including four Afghans, two of whom were killed. The A.I.M. said that the workers were killed on Thursday, but villagers reported seeing them alive on Friday.
The victims’ bodies were stripped of all belongings, making identification difficult and suggesting robbery as a motive. However, Taliban insurgents are known to be active in the area, and the attackers allowed at least one Afghan to leave the scene unharmed. The survivor, an Afghan driver named Saifullah, told police that he was let go because he had recited verses from the Koran.
The governor of Nuristan Province, Jamaluddin Badar, said the expedition had just crossed the border to Badakhshan Province on Friday. They stopped at a local restaurant for lunch in the rugged Sharron Valley of the Hindu Kush mountain range in Badakhshan.
Mr. Kentoz said that local residents told the police that red-bearded gunmen later took the workers prisoner, marched them on foot to a remote area and shot them to death.
It is common in Afghanistan for older men to dye their beards with henna.
A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed that the medical team were shot because they ignored an order from the insurgents to stop. Afterwards, he said, they found evidence that the group were American spies and were preaching Christianity. Speaking by cell phone, he said that they had maps showing their bases, and a Bible in Dari. Although I.A.M. is a Christian-supported group, Mr. Frans said, it does not engage in proselytizing.
Last month, the I.A.M. held a fund-raiser in Kabul for a medical expedition to Nuristan Province. In a blog post to raise funds for the expedition, Dr. Karen Woo, a British-trained surgeon, said the expedition would be hiking with packhorses for three weeks along a 120-mile route in northeastern Nuristan Province to bring medical services to remote areas. The area is close to the Badakhshan provincial border.
“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,” Dr. Woo wrote on the blog.
A statement on I.A.M.’s Web site put the death toll at 10. “It is likely that they are members of the International Assistance Mission eye camp team,” the statement said. “If these reports are confirmed we object to this senseless killing of people who have done nothing but serve the poor.”
Mr. Kentoz said the group, which included an eye doctor and a dental surgeon, was associated with Noor Eye Hospital in Kabul. A spokesman at the hospital identified them as members of the I.A.M.
Mr. Frans said the incident would not deter the Christian-supported group from their work.
“We have worked here under the king, under the Russians, under the Communists, under the warlords and the Taliban,” he said. “Is it time to quit now?”
Richard A. Oppel Jr. contributed reporting from Kabul.
SENTINEL FOUNDER PAT MURPHY