Police launch probe into fatal shootings of 10 foreign medics
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Afghan police are probing the fatal shootings of 10 foreign International Assistance Mission medical staff on Saturday, who director Dirk Frans (pictured) said were returning from Nuristan province when they were attacked by armed men.
AFP - Police were Sunday hunting for a group of gunmen who killed eight foreign medics, including six Americans, in remote northern Afghanistan as authorities sought to recover and identify the bodies.
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 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).
He said the last communication with the group was on Wednesday evening.
Frans said the US embassy was trying to return the bodies to Kabul by helicopter on Sunday for formal identification, after bad weather postponed a planned flight a day earlier.
"I don't think anyone wants to waste any more time. The relatives are still living between hope and fear," said Frans.
There were competing theories over the motive for the attack, 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 military 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, according to the testimony of the Afghan driver, who was the sole 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 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 sole 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 in neighbouring Nuristan.
Northeast Afghanistan has been regarded as largely free of the Taliban-led insurgency troubling other parts of the country.
Frans said many of the dead would be buried in a Christian cemetery in central Kabul as all but one of the foreign medics had been living in Afghanistan full-time.
IAM, a Christian volunteer organisation, had been working in Afghanistan through royal, communist and Taliban rule and would continue despite the killings, Frans said.
"There has never been any threats against us. 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.
British media said she had been due to get married in two weeks' time.
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.
British, German and American authorities said they could not yet confirm their nationals among the dead. Australia and France have condemned the attack.
IAM said it has been operating in the country since 1966, providing eye care to Afghans, running eye hospitals in Kabul, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar.