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Gunmen on motorbike kill Western aid worker in Kabul

Attack stirs alarm in the Afghan capital. A suicide blast in north leaves seven dead.

October 21, 2008|Laura King | King is a Times staff writer.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Taliban gunmen on a motorbike shot and killed a Western female aid worker in the Afghan capital on Monday, fueling a sense that insurgents are increasingly encroaching on the country's seat of government.

In addition, a suicide bomber killed two Western soldiers and five children in the north of Afghanistan, where violence is relatively rare. NATO did not release the nationalities of the troops killed in the attack in Kunduz, but provincial officials identified them as German.

Taken together, the attacks illustrate a recent pattern of activity by militants in areas usually free of such assaults. Western military officials consider this an attempt to make the insurgency appear stronger and better entrenched, with a geographic spread beyond its main bases in the country's volatile south and east.

Attacks on humanitarian groups across Afghanistan have risen dramatically this year, and some of the assaults -- including the killing of three foreign female aid workers and their driver in August -- have taken place not far from Kabul.

But Monday's execution-style street killing of a worker for a British-registered Christian charity was notable for its brazenness.

The fact that the assault took place within the city limits and in daylight sent chills through the expatriate community in Kabul, where the staffs of most international organizations in Afghanistan live and work in heavily fortified compounds.

Security at most foreign installations in the capital, already extremely high, was tightened as word of the killing spread.

The slain woman, who held British and South African citizenship, worked for an organization called SERVE Afghanistan, which says on its website that its main mission is aiding refugees and the disabled. The group identified her as Gayle Williams, 34.

The Taliban movement claimed responsibility for the killing, accusing the woman's organization of trying to spread Christianity. Attempting to convert Muslims is a crime in Afghanistan.

SERVE, whose full name is Serving Emergency Relief and Vocational Enterprises, says that although it is a Christian charity, its mission in Afghanistan is a strictly humanitarian one.

The woman was walking alone in western Kabul about 8 a.m., apparently on her way to her office, when she was shot at least twice, in the leg and torso, by assailants who then sped away on a motorbike, Afghan authorities said.

Growing insecurity in the area surrounding Kabul has been a source of major concern to Western military officials.

Although there have been some serious attacks in the capital in recent months, including a suicide attack on a luxury hotel, a massive car bombing at the Indian Embassy and an assassination attempt against President Hamid Karzai, Kabul has been considered fairly secure.

Underscoring Western military leaders' desire to counter any impression of a capital under siege, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led force said Monday that its troops had attacked militant strongholds in Wardak province, about 40 miles west of the capital. More than 20 insurgents were killed in fighting that began Thursday, the NATO-led force said in a statement.

Fighting has also been centered in recent days around Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. Helmand is the focal point of Afghanistan's lucrative drug trade, which helps bankroll the insurgency.

Provincial officials said Western and Afghan forces had killed nearly three dozen Taliban fighters over the weekend in an area south of Lashkar Gah. On two occasions this month, insurgents had massed around the town in an apparent attempt to storm it, but were beaten back.

As the Helmand fighting intensified, NATO acknowledged Monday that some civilians were killed last week in a Western airstrike in the province's Nad Ali district. Local officials had reported that at least 17 civilians died in the raid, which came in the midst of a clash between Taliban fighters and Western and Afghan troops.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force did not provide a specific casualty figure, but said Monday that it had concluded that some civilians were present in a compound that the militants used as a staging ground for an ambush. At the time of the strike, it was believed that no noncombatants were inside, the statement said.

Civilian casualties have been a major source of friction between Western forces and the Afghan government. Western military officials say strict measures are in place to try to avoid killing or hurting noncombatants, but Afghan officials and human rights groups have demanded that the foreign troops exercise greater caution.

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laura.king@latimes.com

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