Militants brandishing assault rifles ambushed a U.S. relief organization's vehicle south of Kabul, killing three Western aid workers, including an American citizen, and their Afghan driver.
The three women killed in Logar province Wednesday worked for the New York-based International Rescue Committee, said Melissa Winkler, a spokeswoman for the group.
The rescue committee identified the dead as Nicole Dial, 30, a dual American-Trinidadian citizen; Jacqueline Kirk, 40, a dual British-Canadian citizen; and Shirley Case, 30, a Canadian citizen.
Also slain was Mohammad Aimal, 25, from Kabul. He had worked as a driver for the committee since 2002.
Five gunmen armed with assault rifles stepped out of a small village area and fired at the group's vehicles, said Abdullah Khan, the deputy counterterrorism director in Logar, citing an Afghan IRC employee injured in the attack who was traveling in a second vehicle. Khan said the women's vehicle, a white SUV, was hit by hundreds of bullets. It had stickers on the side of the vehicle saying IRC.
'Helping the Afghan people'
Abdurrahman Khan, an IRC driver, was sobbing as he loaded two of the bodies onto the back of a truck at Logar province's Pul-e-Alam hospital.
"They were here helping Afghan people," the driver said. "They were not carrying weapons."
At the hospital, Dr. Mir Mabub Shah said all four bodies had multiple bullet wounds. Three female Afghan nurses were covering the three victims in a white cloth shroud as they placed them in wooden coffins.
The women were traveling from the eastern city of Gardez to Kabul when they were attacked.
Kai Eide, the top U.N. official in Kabul, called it a "cowardly attack."
"The IRC provides life-saving humanitarian assistance to those most affected by the conflict and it is reprehensible that such selfless individuals working for the most vulnerable communities should be deliberately targeted," Eide said.
Despite the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, the group said in July it was carrying on with its projects but has had to reduce the levels of its work.
Attacks against aid workers in Afghanistan have spiked this year. Wednesday's attack brings to at least 23 the number of aid workers killed in militant attacks in 2008, compared with 15 killed in all of 2007, according to a recent report from ANSO, a security group that works for aid organizations in the country.
ANSO said 2008 was on track to be the deadliest year for aid workers in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban. ANSO reported a 50 percent increase in insurgent attacks around the country in 2008 over 2007.
More than 3,200 people have died in insurgency related violence this year, according to an Associated Press count based on Western and Afghan officials.
Taliban claims responsibility
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the killings, saying its fighters attacked two vehicles of "the foreign invader forces."
"They were not working for the interests of Afghanistan and they belonged to those countries whose forces ... took Afghanistan's freedom," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told The Associated Press in a phone call from an undisclosed location.
Mujahid called the women spies, a frequent Taliban accusation against its targets.
"The car was clearly marked. They were clearly not military personnel and this is a major concern not only to us but to all those who are in humanitarian community in Afghanistan," said Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the United Nations mission in Afghanistan.
The International Rescue Committee has been working in Afghanistan for 20 years. In the 1980s, the group provided medical aid to Afghan refugees fleeing into Pakistan during the Soviet occupation.
Since the ouster of the Taliban's hard-line Islamic regime, the group has also been involved with the National Solidarity Program, a community-based development program funded by the World Bank through the Afghan government and implemented by international aid groups.
Anna Husarska, a senior policy adviser for IRC, wrote in an opinion piece for Los Angeles Times in May that insurgents are attacking all those seen as helping the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"Since they oppose the current government, they also oppose those who work with it," she wrote. "And unfortunately, they don't differentiate among armed multinational forces, security contractors and humanitarian groups."
Afghan man killed
In other violence, NATO issued a statement saying its troops killed an Afghan man who failed to stop his vehicle as he approached their patrol in southern Helmand province Tuesday.
A roadside bomb in the same province killed five police officers and wounded four Tuesday, said Dawood Ahmadi, a spokesman for province's governor.
More than 3,200 people have died in insurgency-related violence this year, according to an Associated Press count based on Western and Afghan officials.