Six Afghan Red Cross aid workers have been killed in an ambush in the country’s north while travelling to a remote area to deliver humanitarian aid.
Three vehicles carrying eight International Committee of the Red Cross employees were travelling through Dasht-e Leili, a desert in Jowzjan province, when they came under fire, according to the provincial governor, Lotfullah Azizi. Three drivers and three other personnel were killed, and two are missing.
ICRC in Afghanistan and said it was putting its activities across the country on hold while it assessed what had happened.
Its director-general, Yves Daccord, as “the worst attack against us since 20 years. We are all outraged and so sad.”
The ICRC vehicles were clearly marked when they were ambushed outside Turkman Qudoq village by militants carrying Kalashnikov rifles, said the provincial police chief, Rahmatullah Turkistani. He said a local delegation of elders was investigating the incident.
The attack underscores the danger facing NGOs in Afghanistan. More humanitarian workers are attacked here . Proportionally, in terms of attack per aid worker, only South Sudan is more violent.
Fifteen aid workers were killed in last year, in more than 200 incidents of violence, kidnappings and killings directed against humanitarian organisations, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha).
Northern Afghanistan in particular has become increasingly dangerous for aid workers. In 2013, militants shot and killed six employees of the French charity ACTED in Faryab. In 2015, nine Afghan staff members with the Czech organisation People in Need were shot in a guesthouse in Balkh.
Jowzjan, where Wednesday’s incident took place, is rife with insurgency and armed struggles between competing pro-government factions.
Up to 25 armed units, fighting for the Taliban and , are present in Jowzjan alone, said Azizi, the governor. They fight for turf against each other, and with security forces and various pro-government militias. Azizi said a local affiliate group of Isis was behind the ambush.
In a statement, the Taliban said they were not involved, calling the attack “the work of kidnappers”.
Qush Tepa, where the attack occurred, is highly contested. The area is largely controlled by Qari Hekmat, an ethnic Uzbek with a long history as a Taliban commander and up to 200 men under his authority, according to Obaid Ali, a researcher with the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
Ali said Hekmat previously had a dispute with the Taliban’s shadow governor in the province over taxation issues, and had recently set a cluster of civilian houses on fire, but he could not confirm claims from Azizi, the governor, that Hekmat had joined Isis.
As a sign of the deteriorating security, only one Afghan charity works permanently in Qush Tepa.
ICRC, which enjoys special protection under the Geneva Conventions, has traditionally not come under attack in Afghanistan, apart from the killing of an Italian engineer in 2002. Its reputation of impartiality has allowed the group to work in areas inaccessible to others.
In 2012, the Afghan Taliban even after one of its aid workers was killed in Pakistan, commending ICRC for “truly serving the people”.
More recently, however, as aid workers have increasingly become targets in Afghanistan, ICRC has also suffered. In 2013, suicide bombers attacked an ICRC compound in Jalalabad, killing a guard and wounding another employee. In December, a Spanish employee was abducted in Kunduz. He was freed last month.