10 Members Of Medical Team Killed In Afghanistan

Ten people on a medical mission, including six Americans, a Briton, a German and two Afghans, have been shot and killed. The Taliban have claimed responsibility for the attack in a remote part of northern Afghanistan. Jacki Lyden gets the latest on the story from NPR's Quil Lawrence in Kabul.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Scott Simon is away. A team of 10 medical charity workers, who'd been missing for several days, have been found shot to death in northeast Afghanistan.

The dead include six Americans, a Briton, a German and two Afghans. The Taliban have claimed responsibility for killing the team as they traveled back from an expedition to a remote health clinic in the Hindu Kush Mountains. NPR's Kabul bureau chief, Quil Lawrence, joins us now with more on the story.

Good morning, Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Good morning. Thanks, Jacki.

LYDEN: Do we know any more details about the victims?

LAWRENCE: They were apparently on their way back from a clinic in Nuristan, a very remote area of the Hindu Kush Mountains, and they were possibly ambushed by Taliban gunmen.

Nuristan's about as far out as you can get, especially because to the south of it, there's heavy insurgent fighting. These are areas where even the U.S. military pulled out because it's so hostile and sparsely populated.

The doctors apparently decided to return to Kabul through a northern route that they thought would be safer, through Badakhshan, which has less of a historic Taliban presence, when they possibly ran into this ambush.

The leader was an optometrist from New York - the leader of this expedition. He'd been working in Afghanistan for decades, and he was fluent in the local language. Two of the Afghans who died were interpreters.

This group had held a fundraiser here in Kabul last month. I had a chance to meet with some of them, including a young, British-trained surgeon named Karen Woo, who'd left a lucrative practice in the U.K. to come here as a volunteer to treat Afghans in the poorest parts of the country

LYDEN: The organization they worked with, International Assistance Mission, identifies itself as a Christian organization. Was there a religious motivation for these killings?

LAWRENCE: We've just spoken with a Taliban spokesman, who said that they were shot, actually, because their car failed to stop, he claims, at an insurgent checkpoint in Badakhshan. And he said that these insurgents then opened fire on the car, killing almost everyone inside. One Afghan did survive, and he was set free.

The Taliban spokesman said that afterwards, they discovered research material that he said proves the team were spying for the Americans and possibly for the Germans, who also have troops here - and other material that he says proves they were preaching Christianity.

But this organization's been working here in Afghanistan since the '60s, and it's hard to believe that they could've lasted all these years if they were really a proselytizing missionary organization.

A spokesman here in Kabul for the group condemned what he called senseless killings of people who were only here to serve the poorest of Afghans.

LYDEN: Quil, of course, violence continues all over Afghanistan. There are also reports of an apparent assassination of a candidate running for parliament. What can you tell us about that?

LAWRENCE: Yeah, the candidate's name was Najib Gulstani, and he was running to represent Ghazni province. He was abducted about 10 days ago by the Taliban, who dominate Ghazni province. And apparently, he was offered in exchange for detained Taliban prisoners. That deal - obviously - didn't go through. His body was recovered last night.

And it has been a very violent week here across the south of the country as U.S. troops - part of the American troop surge into Afghanistan - have pushed out into the south. The Americans say they've been experiencing a higher rate of casualties because they're engaging with the Taliban like never before. And they're also making daily reports of having killed or captured Taliban fighters and commanders.

LYDEN: NPR's Quil Lawrence in Kabul.

Thanks very much.

LAWRENCE: Thanks, Jacki.

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