KABUL (Reuters) - An international Christian aid group denied on Sunday Taliban accusations that its team of foreign medical workers killed in Afghanistan’s remote northeast had been proselytizing.
The bodies of 10 medical aid workers, eight foreigners and two Afghans, were flown by helicopter from Badakshan province back to Kabul on Sunday, the U.S. embassy in the Afghan capital said, confirming that six of the dead were American.
The International Assistance Mission (IAM) had said the victims were members of its 12-strong eye care team that had been working in Badakshan and neighboring Nuristan.
IAM said the team consisted of six Americans, a German, a British woman and four Afghans. Five of the foreigners were men and three women. Two Afghans escaped alive.
On Saturday, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing, saying the medical workers had been carrying bibles in Dari — one of Afghanistan’s two main languages — and were killed because they were promoting Christianity.
Condemning the Taliban, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave some details on what happened in a statement released by the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
“The Taliban stopped them on a remote road on their journey from Nuristan, led them into a forest, robbed them, and killed them,” she said, rejecting the claim of spreading Christianity.
Dirk Frans, the executive director of IAM, told Reuters the group was not involved in proselytisation.
“The accusation is completely baseless, they were not carrying any bibles except maybe their personal bibles,” he said. “As an organization we are not involved in proselytizing at all.”
The family of the British victim, Dr Karen Woo, also denied the Taliban charge. “Her motivation was purely humanitarian. She was a Humanist and had no religious or political agenda,” they said in a statement.
Woo, who worked for the separate Bridge Afghanistan group, had written in a recent blog posting that she would act as the team doctor and run a mother-and-child clinic in Nuristan.
The U.S. embassy said in a statement that it would not release names of the dead at this stage.
“Consular staff and FBI special agents assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, alongside Afghan counterparts and representatives from the UK and German Embassies, worked to identify the victims of this tragic attack,” it said.
Despite the Taliban claim, there was no independent confirmation of any role by the Islamist group.
Violence in Afghanistan is at its worst since U.S.-led and Afghan armed groups overthrew the Taliban in 2001.
June was the bloodiest month of the war for foreign forces in Afghanistan, with more than 100 killed. Deaths of civilians caught in the crossfire have also risen about six percent in the first seven months of 2010 against the same period last year, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) said.
AIHRC spokesman Nader Nadery said 1,325 civilians had been killed across Afghanistan in the first seven months of the year, roughly 68 percent of those deaths caused by the Taliban or other insurgents and about 23 percent by international forces. It was not possible to determine how the others died.
The IAM said the members of its eye care team were on their way back to Kabul when they were killed by unidentified gunmen.
"Perhaps no one ever expects it to be them, perhaps not their immediate friends either, it (is) always some poor unknown person, a local national, a third country national. We count those that matter to us," Woo wrote in another recent blog about the dangers of working in Afghanistan (link.reuters.com/puc83n).
IAM says it is a “charitable, non-profit, Christian organization” which has been working in Afghanistan since 1966 and under many different rulers.
Frans said the group would review its security but thought it was highly unlikely they would leave. “We have been here when the king was in power, when the Russians were in power, when the mujahideen were fighting here in Kabul under the Taliban and all the time we have stayed,” he said.
U.S. forces withdrew from the province in the past year after taking heavy losses in years of battle near its Pakistan border.
Additional reporting by Abdul Saboor and Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Nick Macfie/David Stamp