A group of western tourists on a sightseeing adventure tour of have been ambushed by Taliban gunmen, Afghan officials said on Thursday, with at least six people wounded.
The foreigners were travelling in the Chesht-e-Sharif district in the western province of Herat with an Afghan army escort when militants opened fire on the convoy. The group were heading for Herat city, the country’s ancient cultural centre, close to the Iranian border.
A spokesman for Herat’s governor said the tourists included eight Britons, three US citizens and one German. Two of the British citizens were believed to be from Scotland.
A military spokesman said the attack left at least five foreign tourists and their Afghan driver wounded. Sources with knowledge of the local insurgency said the Taliban’s shadow governor in Chesht-e Sharif, Haji Abdurrahman, was assumed to be behind it.
The attack reportedly ended at around 1.30pm local time. About two hours later, the group arrived at a medical clinic in Obeh district, west of the ambush site, according to a source at the clinic. Reportedly, none of the injuries was serious.
According to sources in Kabul, the party had gone to Afghanistan with Hinterland Travel, a small British tour operator based in Brighouse, West Yorkshire, run by veteran tour guide Geoff Hann.
The company specialises in adventure tours to war-torn countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. It has defended travelling to Afghanistan despite UK Foreign Office advice to avoid it. Promotional material describes the country as at the “cutting edge of adventure tourism, which in itself can offer benefits and progress”.
The firm’s latest 21-day tour, began on 26 July. It says tourists arrive in the capital Kabul and then travel by road to the Bamiyan valley, home of giant Buddha statues blown up by the Taliban in 2001.
From Bamiyan, the route continues through the centre of the country and its scenic lakes to Herat, with the journey described as “tough but beautiful”.
The website says: “The country is desperately poor. Frankly it needs any help that we or anyone can provide … The main roads had become diabolical but are now being totally reconstructed. The Afghan people are friendly and cheerfully welcoming, although wary until we can prove that we are travellers and not something else. Ancient and recent history are scattered everywhere, from Buddhist remains to burnt-out tanks.”
No one from the firm was available for comment. A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: “We are providing assistance to British nationals involved in the attack in Herat and are coordinating closely with local authorities.”
At least two UK-based companies, in addition to Hinterland Travel, offer tours to Afghanistan.
James Willcox, founder of Untamed Borders, said his agency rarely travels by road in Afghanistan, and only in low-profile cars and dressed in local clothes. They have not travelled the road between Bamiyan and Herat since 2009 “due to security concerns in the section between Chaghcharan and Herat,” Willcox said. That is the stretch of road where Thursday’s ambush occurred.
Wild Frontiers, another tour company, said they, too, only fly through the central provinces. They haven’t arranged any tours to Afghanistan this year, partly due to deteriorating security and partly due to a lack of client interest. Usually, the company takes 30-40 tourists a year to Afghanistan, said its head of tour groups, Marc Leaderman.
“This year will be the first in many years where we don’t take a single client to Afghanistan,” Leaderman said. “We do feel the security situation is going in the wrong direction.” Even if there had been customer interest, “I probably wouldn’t have been happy to run a trip,” he said.
He added: “I’m devastated to hear this news. If it is true, I’m sure it’s something that will have far-reaching consequences.”
The officially claimed responsibility for the attack on Thursday afternoon. It comes as militants intensify their annual summer offensive after a brief lull during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, which ended in early July.
A handful of tourists visited Taliban-run Afghanistan in the years leading up to the 2001 US-led invasion. They were the first to do so after two decades of war and Soviet occupation. that it checked out possible routes in 2002, and has been running tours successfully ever since.
Understandably, given continuing violence, there has been no revival of the 1970s hippy trail, which saw thousands of students and Peace Corps volunteers descend on Kabul’s Chicken Street en route to India. . A year later, hardline elements destroyed the fourth-century Buddhas, the country’s most celebrated attraction.
A handful of tourists still go to Bamiyan and its mountains, which host an annual Afghan ski challenge. Tour agencies also take groups to the far-flung Wakhan Corridor, the Panjshir Valley and Herat.
However, tourism has been in decline. According to Bamiyan’s information and culture department, the number of tourists visiting the Band-e Amir national park , to 144 foreign and roughly 2,000 Afghan visitors. Most of the foreigners visiting the park are assumed to be expats living in Kabul.
Highways in Afghanistan passing through insurgency-prone areas have become exceedingly dangerous, with the Taliban and other armed groups frequently kidnapping or killing travellers.