KABUL, Afghanistan — Ten members of an international medical mission, including six Americans, were robbed and killed while returning from a two-week trek through risky parts of eastern Afghanistan, Afghan officials and organizers of the aid mission said Saturday.
Taliban officials claimed responsibility for killing the seven men and three women who embarked on the journey to deliver medical aid to residents in a remote valley in Nuristan Province.
In a text message claiming responsibility, the Taliban said they killed the aid workers because they were preaching Christianity and spying for Western forces in Afghanistan.
The killings are likely to send a chill through an international aid community that faces constant risks while working in Afghanistan.
Among those killed during the expedition was Tom Little, a New York optometrist who’d worked in Afghanistan for more than three decades and was kicked out by the Taliban in 2001 because of his work with Christian aid groups.
“We object to this senseless killing of people who have done nothing but serve the poor,” the International Assistance Mission said in a statement.
“This tragedy negatively impacts our ability to continue serving the Afghan people as IAM has been doing since 1966,” it said. “We hope it will not stop our work that benefits over a quarter of a million Afghans each year.”
According to one survivor of the attack, the group had stopped for lunch at a restaurant between Badakhshan and Nuristan provinces when about 10 masked gunmen attacked the medical team.
The survivor, a driver named Saifullah, told Afghan officials that the group spent two weeks delivering medical aid in Nuristan before being warned by local residents to leave because of Taliban threats.
Saifullah told police that the attackers spared his life because he recited verses from the Koran.
Also among those killed was Karen Woo, a British-trained surgeon who recently held a fundraiser in Kabul for the expedition.
At the gathering, Woo told supporters that she understood the risks, but wanted to do something to help Afghans.
“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,” Woo wrote in a blog post before setting off on the journey.
Attacks on aid groups have been in decline, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, an independent group that analyzes risks for aid group working in the country.
The group had documented no significant attacks on aid groups in Nuristan or Badakhshan this year, and it reported that security incidents across Afghanistan had reached a five month low in June.
“NGOs are often at pains to determine who is in ‘control’ of any given area and subsequently who should be approached for reassurances of safety,” the safety office wrote in a recent report.
In the first six months of this year, the group reported, seven aid workers were killed and 19 others abducted.
Gen. Aqa Noor Kentoz, the police chief in Badakhshan province, said that the aid group didn’t inform local officials it was passing through the area, a precaution sometimes taken by foreigners traveling in remote parts of Afghanistan.
Ironically, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Saturday that a contract has been awarded for the construction of new police stations in Badakhshan and Kunduz provinces. The stations, which will house 60 Afghan police officers each, are scheduled for completion in October 2011.
(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)