Two Afghan translators were also killed with the eight foreign aid workers – three women and five men – whom they'd been helping. Their bodies were found riddled with bullets next to their abandoned vehicles in a mountainous area of Badakhshan province, the provincial police chief told The New York Times.
The victims were a group of foreign medical personnel who'd been working at an eye care center in remote Nuristan, and were returning to the Afghan capital when they were ambushed, the International Assistance Mission said in a statement on its website. The charity lost contact with the group on Wednesday evening, and a local shepherd later found their bodies and alerted Afghan police, CNN reported.
"We object to this senseless killing of people who have done nothing but serve the poor. Some of the foreigners have worked alongside the Afghan people for decades," the IAM statement said, noting that the charity has worked in Afghanistan since 1966, making it the longest-serving NGO there.
This is one of the largest death tolls for foreign aid workers in Afghanistan in a single incident, and the deadliest episode for American civilians there since a suicide bomber killed seven CIA agents at a base in eastern Afghanistan last year. It also underscores the danger for charity workers there, whom the Taliban often view as collaborators with U.S. and NATO forces, rather than humanitarian non-combatants. Earlier this summer, gunmen and suicide bombers stormed the northern Afghan offices of the U.S.-based DAI charity, killing at least five people.
One of the victims of this week's ambush, a female British doctor identified as 36-year-old Karen Woo, had set up a Facebook page for the fated Nuristan expedition, requesting donations for the charity and posting photos of herself and Afghan children. Another photo shows at least two SUVs on a rocky path in Nuristan surrounded by snow-capped mountains, in a hauntingly idyllic scene not far from where the group was killed.
Woo also wrote a blog for another group, Bridge Afghanistan, which is carrying a message from one of her colleagues today, noting the "terrible news" and confirming the doctor's death. Before departing for Nuristan, Woo wrote that the expedition would "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 wrote.
Also among those killed was Tom Little, an American optometrist from Delmar, N.Y., who'd been working with IAM in Afghanistan for decades, supervising eye hospitals in Kabul and smaller clinics in several other towns. He was one of those forced to evacuate the country in August 2001, after eight Christian aid workers were arrested for allegedly trying to convert Afghans to Christianity. But he returned to live in Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion.
Nothing was left behind at the scene of the attack – passports, wallets nor any of the medical professionals' equipment or personal items – suggesting robbery could have been a motive. But Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed told VOA News and other agencies that his group's fighters suspected the doctors of being "Christian missionaries."
"We killed them all," Mujahed was quoted as saying. He didn't offer proof, and it's possible that bandits were instead to blame. In the past, the Taliban has misleadingly claimed responsibility for attacks to exaggerate its power.
Badakhshan is a mainly ethnic Tajik province of northern Afghanistan that borders neighboring Tajikistan. Ironically, it was one of the few Afghan provinces that was autonomous and not under tight Taliban control when the Islamic militia ruled Afghanistan before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
A third Afghan man who'd been traveling with the group survived the ambush and is being questioned by police, the provincial police chief, Gen. Agha Noor Kemtuz, told Al-Jazeera.
"He told me he was shouting and reciting the holy Quran and saying 'I am Muslim. Don't kill me'," Kemtuz said. He said the survivor described how the group was surrounded by armed men on the road and then attacked, and the doctors were shot to death one by one.