KABUL, Afghanistan — Suspected Taliban militants on Wednesday killed five Afghans working on a U.S.-funded project to help end opium farming, and a man claiming to have abducted an Italian aid worker threatened to kill her — part of a surge in anti-Western violence apparently aimed at undermining Afghanistan’s recovery.
The five Afghans killed Wednesday were ambushed and shot to death as they drove through southern Helmand province, said senior provincial official Ghulam Muhiddin.
They were working on a U.S. government-sponsored project providing alternative livelihoods to farmers growing opium, the raw material for heroin, said Carol Yee, a representative for Washington-based Chemonics International, which is managing the project.
The United States and other countries are pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into Afghanistan in a crackdown on the drug trade. The nation last year produced nearly 90 percent of the world’s opium, sparking warnings it is fast becoming a “narco-state” less than four years after the end of its role as an al-Qaida haven.
Militants and criminals have stepped up attacks across Afghanistan. A spate of assaults on foreigners in the capital, Kabul, have raised fears they may be copying tactics used in Iraq.
CARE worker ‘critical’
Italian Clementina Cantoni was in “critical condition” from injuries she suffered when four armed men dragged her from her car in Kabul, where she works for CARE International, said the purported kidnapper, who called himself Temur Shah.
He threatened to kill Cantoni unless the government met his demands, which included more Islamic boarding schools being built and authorities helping farmers find alternatives to growing opium.
“If our demands are not accepted ... we will show our reaction and finish her,” said the man.
Shah gave no proof that Cantoni, 32, was his captive, and the Afghan government did not immediately comment on his demands.
Authorities have said they suspect Cantoni was kidnapped by the same criminal gang that abducted three U.N. workers last year. The three were held for nearly a month, then released.
Cantoni has been in Afghanistan since 2002 and was working for CARE International on a project helping Afghan widows and their families.
Former Taliban official to seek election
Meanwhile, a former foreign minister for the ousted Taliban regime said he has enrolled as a candidate to run in September elections for the new 249-seat legislature.
Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, considered a relative moderate, surrendered to U.S. forces in 2003. He was arrested at a U.S. base before being held under house arrest in Kabul, and freed in April.
“I am an Afghan and I have the right to be an independent candidate,” he told The Associated Press. “I am doing this for the sake of the people of Afghanistan. If I win, I will work for the peace and development of Afghanistan.”
When asked if he still had any Taliban ties, Muttawakil said: “The Taliban are also Afghans. The public must decide who they want as their leaders, whether it’s the Taliban or someone else.”
The head of the joint U.N.-Afghan election commission, Bismillah Bismil, said he could not confirm that Muttawakil had enrolled.
In an interview televised earlier this month, Muttawakil urged his former Taliban comrades to hold talks with the government, saying “it will be good for our people.”
Afghan officials have recently reached out to Taliban members to lay down their weapons and rejoin civil society. Several midlevel Taliban commanders have accepted the offer, but the insurgency continues to produce heavy clashes.
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