KABUL, AFGHANISTAN, AND LOS ANGELES — Taliban fighters gunned down a 10-member international medical team, including six Americans, in the wilds of northern Afghanistan, the aid group and local officials said Saturday, in an ambush that highlighted the growing dangers faced by foreign charity organizations in the country.
The aid workers, who also included two Afghans, a German and a Briton, were attacked Thursday in a remote forested area of Badakhshan province as they were returning from a mission to provide eye care to rural villagers, according to provincial police and the International Assistance Mission, the Kabul-based group that organized the trip.
The ambush was one of the deadliest strikes against foreign aid workers in the nearly nine-year Afghanistan war. It also represented the largest toll for U.S. civilians working in the country since a suicide bomber killed seven members of a CIA team at a base in eastern Afghanistan in December.
The Taliban has increasingly targeted foreign aid workers, whom it views as collaborators with the Western military. Last month, gunmen and suicide bombers stormed the offices of the U.S.-based development group DAI in Kunduz province, also in Afghanistan's north, killing at least five people.
Violence in Afghanistan has burgeoned this year, with Afghan civilians and Western troops suffering record numbers of deaths.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the aid workers' deaths, saying those killed were spies and preachers of Christianity. The details provided in statements by spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid suggested that the killers were insurgents and not bandits, who also roam freely in the area.
Mujahid said insurgents encountered the group in the Kiran Munjan district of Badakhshan and tried to arrest them on suspicion of spying.
"But they tried to escape, then mujahedin attacked and killed all of them on the spot," he said by telephone.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the Afghan capital, could not confirm the nationalities of the six who were listed by the group as Americans, but spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said there was "reason to believe that several American citizens are among the deceased."
The charity's executive director, Dirk Frans, said the group was still awaiting positive identification of the bodies but that the police description matched that of its workers and their vehicles. Three of the team members were women, he said.
The dead apparently included the medical team's leader, Tom Little, an optometrist from Delmar, N.Y., who had been with the organization since its early days, Frans said.
Afghan associates in Kabul described the team as dedicated and caring.
"He had worked here for decades, opening clinics all over Afghanistan," Mohammed Yousef Barakai, the head of the group's eye hospital in Kabul, said of Little. "He only wanted to help the Afghan people."
Another member of the team, British surgeon Karen Woo, regularly blogged about her work and life in Afghanistan, calling herself Explorer Kitten. The entries included her impressions working at a medical clinic in Kabul as a bomb detonated nearby and a search for the perfect silk cloth for a tailored gown.
In a July entry, she pondered whether to wear nail polish on the upcoming medical expedition in Nuristan.
"Ridiculous I know but several tense minutes were spent thinking through the consequences of bonding with the women of the village ... only to find that nail polish is considered to be the devil's sporn or at the very least the mark of a [harlot] and that my actions are punishable by death," she wrote. "I contemplate not wearing any myself but decide that toes a la nude is a mistake and that I should just risk it with a neutral shade."
In a chilling entry on the website for a nonprofit group called Bridge Afghanistan, Woo recently wrote about the risks of her upcoming trip:
"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 police chief in Badakhshan, Gen. Agha Nur Kamtuz, said villagers told police that the International Assistance Mission workers had been in the area for about two weeks, moving between there and neighboring Nuristan province. Heavy fighting has been taking place over the last month in parts of Nuristan between insurgents and Afghan security forces backed by Western troops.
"People told them it was dangerous," Kamtuz said. "They said they were doctors ... and no one had anything against them."
Villagers alerted authorities after they found three bullet-riddled vehicles that belonged to the group in the forest, the police chief said. News reports, which included Taliban assertions that the team members had Bibles in the Dari language, said that an Afghan driver had been spared after pleading for his life and quoting the Koran.