Masked gunmen killed 10 people working for the HALO Trust mine-clearing organisation in northern Afghanistan, the interior ministry said Wednesday, blaming the Taliban for the latest attack to rock the violence-wracked country.
The raid happened on Tuesday evening as dozens of deminers were relaxing at a HALO compound in Baghlan province, around 260 kilometres (160 miles) north of the capital, after a day spent looking for ordnance in the area.
Baghlan has seen fierce fighting in recent months, with near-daily battles between the Taliban and government forces in several districts.
A survivor of Tuesday’s attack told AFP that five or six armed men scaled the compound walls and gathered everyone together before asking if there were any Hazara present.
Afghanistan’s Shiite Hazara community is often targeted by jihadists from the Islamic State, who consider them heretics.
“Nobody responded,” said the survivor, who was wounded in the attack and asked not to be identified.
He told AFP the gunmen then asked the compound leader to identify himself, before shooting him.
“Then one of them said ‘kill them all’,” he said.
“As they opened fire, we all tried to escape. Some were killed and some, like me, were wounded.”
– Taliban deny responsibility –
The interior ministry blamed the Taliban for the attack, but a spokesman for the insurgents denied responsibility.
“We condemn attacks on the defenseless & view it as brutality,” Zabihullah Mujahid said on Twitter.
“We have normal relations with NGOs, our Mujahideen will never carry out such brutal acts.”
The UK-based HALO Trust told AFP “an unknown armed group” killed 10 staff and wounded 16 others.
Violence has surged across the country since May 1 when the US military began its final troop withdrawal amid a deadlock in peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
In several districts where fighting has been intense in recent months, the insurgents have planted roadside bombs and mines to target government forces, but the explosives often kill and wound civilians.
Afghanistan was already one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, a legacy of decades of conflict.
The HALO Trust was founded in 1988 specifically to tackle ordnance left following the near ten-year Soviet occupation, and became a favourite cause of Britain’s Princess Diana.
The organisation’s website says it has an Afghan workforce of more than 2,600 and has removed landmines from nearly 80 percent of the country’s recorded minefields and battlefields.
The United Nations Resident Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan Ramiz Alakbarov condemned what he said was a “heinous attack” on HALO workers.
“It is repugnant that an organisation that works to clear landmines and other explosives and better the lives of vulnerable people could be targeted,” he said in a statement.
On Wednesday, the Taliban claimed it had shot down an Afghan military helicopter in the province of Wardak near Kabul, but the defence ministry said the aircraft had crashed due to “technical reasons”.
Three crew members were killed in the incident, the ministry said.