Masked gunmen killed 10 people working for the HALO Trust mine-clearing organisation in northern Afghanistan in an attack the government blamed on the Taliban Wednesday, but the UK-based charity said the insurgents actually helped end the assault.
The raid happened late on Tuesday 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 asked not to be identified.
He told AFP the gunmen then asked the compound leader to identify himself, before shooting him dead.
“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 scared off the assailants’ –
Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh blamed the Taliban for the attack, saying in a tweet the insurgents wanted to “steal money and unexploded devices” from the HALO base.
But James Cowan, chief executive of HALO, told BBC radio that the insurgents actually helped end the assault that also left 16 workers wounded.
Cowan said the attackers went “bed to bed, murdering in cold blood my staff”.
“This is a horrific incident, the worst in the HALO Trust’s history,” he said.
The Taliban dismissed the government’s accusation that they were behind the attack — and Cowen also said the insurgents were not responsible.
“The Taliban have denied responsibility for this and indeed the local Talib group came to our aid and scared off the assailants,” he said, adding his organisation was unaware who the attackers were.
The Taliban earlier denied any blame.
“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.”
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.