KABUL, Afghanistan – Armed men opened fire late Tuesday on dozens of deminers who worked for a British charity, killing 10 men and injuring 16 others. The incident occurred in the northern Afghan province of Baghlan, according to the HALO Trust charity and the Afghan interior ministry.
A video shared by Afghanistan's TOLO News site showed men bringing in the wounded to a hospital in the provincial capital of Pul-e-Khumri. One was carried in on a gurney; two men hoisted another.
It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack.
The HALO Trust was founded in Kabul in 1988 with the mission of clearing landmines in conflict zones, and has worked in the country since then, employing more than 2,600 Afghans, according to its website. It says it has "made safe almost 80 percent of the country's recorded minefields and battlefields," and also supports landmine victims.
The charity is British-registered and works in conflict zones throughout the world. It rose to prominence after Princess Diana walked through one of its minefields in Angola in 1997.
The attack spotlighted deteriorating security throughout Afghanistan as U.S. and foreign allies withdraw their troops and equipment from the country, even as government forces struggle to keep the Taliban at bay.
The insurgents have seized some 17 districts across Afghanistan over the past few weeks, according to local media. Most recently, they overran the district of Jaghatu that straddles the provinces of Maidan Wardak and Ghazni, south of Kabul. The Taliban also claimed to have shot down an Afghan military aircraft that was apparently trying to land to resupply forces. An Afghan interior ministry spokesman, Tariq Arian, tells NPR that the aircraft crashed because of technical errors, killing three crew members.
In Baghlan province, the gunmen began their attack as some 110 workers gathered in the HALO Trust camp, "having finished their work on nearby minefields," the trust said in a statement posted on Twitter.
Although the Taliban have been clashing with Afghan forces in Baghlan, and even seized the district of Burka earlier in May, the deputy governor of the province said there was no fighting in the area when the attack occurred.
Mahboobullah Ghafari said men from the HALO Trust had been working in the area for three days, and had pitched tents in a central area known as Sheikh Jalal.
He said thieves were likely behind the attack. "These were robbers who had gone there — the [group] had machines which they wanted to steal. But when they saw a lot of guys inside the tent, they opened fire."
But the Afghan government blamed the Taliban. "The Taliban terrorists claim that they will protect people who are here to help, but they are doing otherwise," Arian, the interior ministry spokesman, tells NPR.
The Taliban denied the charge. A spokesman who uses the name Zabihullah Mujahid tells NPR that they condemned the attack. He added on Twitter that they view such attacks as "brutality."
"Our Mujahidin will never carry out such brutal acts," he wrote.
In a statement, the United Nations condemned the killings.
"It is repugnant that an organization that works to clear landmines and other explosives and better the lives of vulnerable people could be targeted," said Ramiz Alakbarov, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator. He called for a "full investigation to ensure that those responsible for any violations are held accountable and brought to justice."
The Afghan government has not undertaken serious or satisfactory investigations into a horror reel of militant attacks that have struck its citizens over the years, according to Human Rights Watch. The group says the government has also not investigated the murders of journalists, human rights activists, clerics and judicial workers that began escalating after the Afghan government began peace talks with the Taliban.
Khwaga Ghani reported from Kabul. Diaa Hadid reported from Fremantle, Australia. Abdul Sattar contributed reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan.