updated 6/3/2004 9:47:58 AM ET 2004-06-03T13:47:58

A Nobel Peace Prize-winning relief agency suspended operations in Afghanistan on Thursday, a day after five of its aid workers were killed in an ambush claimed by the former Taliban regime.

The assault on the Medecins Sans Frontieres group in northern Afghanistan was the deadliest since the radical Islamic militia was ousted in late 2001.

Two Dutch aid workers, a Norwegian doctor and their Afghan driver and translator were killed when attackers on a motorcycle shredded a four-wheel-drive painted with the organization’s red logo with assault rifles and grenades.

“For the time being, our activities will be suspended nationwide,” MSF spokeswoman Vicky Hawkins told a news conference. “In the coming weeks we will analyze this event in-depth, but for the moment our priority is to take care of those most affected by this tragedy.”

MSF, known in English as Doctors Without Borders, employs 80 expatriates and 1,400 local people in its nationwide operations, and the suspension reflected an immediate increase in fear that an insurgency that has already severely limited operations by relief agencies in the south and east of the country could be spreading.

The organization plans to pull some expatriates back to Kabul and move some other staff to safer locations for the time being.

Grave implications
The implications of the suspension could be grave. MSF is one of the most professional international relief agencies and often sets the trend for others. It has decades of experience in Afghanistan. The organization won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.

“We’d adjusted ourselves to a particular level of criminal risk,” said Gorm Pedersen, head of Danish aid group DACAAR, one of the main agencies providing wells and water across rural Afghanistan. “That we could handle, but now it may be becoming political. It’s most worrying.”

President Hamid Karzai expressed sorrow about the attack before leaving Thursday for the United States. But despite daily assaults against soldiers and election workers, Karzai claimed poverty worried ordinary Afghans more.

“I think we are quite all right with security,” Karzai said. “We have incidents, sure, we must reduce them. But this is not an alarming thing.”

The United Nations took a more alarmed view, saying in a statement it was “deeply shocked and outraged by ... yet another tragic and unacceptable act,” which confirmed that security had “evolved negatively” in recent months.

The U.N. called for more foreign troops to help Afghans provide security.

The slain foreigners were identified as Egil Tynaes, a 63-year-old doctor from Norway, Willem Kwint, a 40-year-old Dutch man, and Helene de Beir, 30, from the Netherlands.

Police investigating the incident said a farmer saw gunmen ambush the group Wednesday afternoon in a desert area near Khair Khana, a village 340 miles west of Kabul.

“Two men on a motorbike stopped the car and opened fire with Kalashnikovs,” Badghis police chief Amir Shah Naibzada said. “He gave a detailed description of the attackers. We’re following that up.”

Taliban allegedly claims responsibility for ambush
In Kabul, MSF officials choked back emotion as they told reporters of how colleagues found the white Toyota some 25 minutes’ drive outside Khair Khana after the victims missed a radio check.

Shots hit the car’s windows on three sides and shrapnel from a grenade was lodged in one side. The attackers disconnected the radio, but stole nothing.

The group said it had experienced no problems or received any threats in Badghis, an area close to the border with Turkmenistan considered among the safest for aid workers.

Mullah Abdul Hakim Latifi, a purported spokesman for the Taliban, called The Associated Press on Wednesday and said the militia staged the attack. He threatened more attacks and claimed that “international aid workers were working for the policy of America.”

Taliban rebels and their al-Qaida allies have killed at least 33 aid workers since March last year, most of them Afghans.

Last November, gunmen killed Bettina Goislard, a 29-year old worker for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, in the eastern city of Ghazni, the first foreign U.N. staff member slain since the fall of the Taliban.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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