ISLAMABAD - Officials in Afghanistan said Wednesday that gunmen attacked the office of an international charity clearing land mines in the country, killing at least 10 people and injuring more than a dozen others.
The overnight assault on Britain-based HALO Trust’s camp occurred in the embattled northern Baghlan province, the scene of fierce fighting between Afghan security forces and Taliban insurgents.
A provincial police spokesman told VOA the victims were all Afghan citizens who work at the de-mining camp, alleging that insurgents gathered them in a room before spraying them with bullets.
The local affiliate of the Islamic State terror group, known as IS Khorasan Province (ISKP), took credit for the massacre, saying it inflicted more than 60 casualties, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.
A Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied the insurgent group’s involvement, saying the Baghlan-e-Markazi district where the “horrifying” assault took place late Tuesday was not controlled by the insurgents.
“We condemn attacks on the defenseless & view it as brutality. We have normal relations with NGOs, our Mujahidin will never carry out such brutal acts,” Mujahid wrote on Twitter.
The HALO Trust denounced the attack, saying more than 100 de-miners from local communities were undertaking humanitarian missions in the area. Officials at the charity said “local Taliban” came to the rescue of the victims and “scared the assailants off.”
“The (armed) group entered the camp and opened fire. Around 110 men, from local communities in northern Afghanistan, were in the camp having finished their work on nearby minefields,” the charity said in a statement it posted on Twitter.
Videos posted on social media showed survivors saying the attackers singled out and executed mostly members of the Hazara Shi’ite community.
The HALO Trust confirmed those accounts. “The armed men demanded Hazara members of our team. When our staff refused to name them, the gunmen went from room to room murdering our staff,” the charity said.
The Sunni extremist ISKP has claimed responsibility for almost all recent deadly bombings and other attacks against Hazara Afghans in the country.
The United Nations demanded a full investigation into the incident, in order to bring those responsible to account.
“It is repugnant that an organization that works to clear land mines and other explosives and better the lives of vulnerable people could be targeted,” lamented Ramiz Alakbarov, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Kabul.
The HALO Trust launched its Afghan operations in 1988 when the country was still under the decadelong occupation of the then Soviet Union army, which ended in 1989. The organization has operations in parts of the world where there is a need to remove post-war residues like removing land mines including in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and South America.
The British-based charity says on its website it helps countries recover after conflict and clearing landmines is at the heart of its work. The group notes its completely Afghan-led program, with a workforce of 2,600 staff, has made safe almost 80% of the country’s recorded minefields and battlefields over the past 30 years.
The deadly attack on Afghan de-miners came as the Taliban have intensified battlefield operations across the country and captured more than 14 districts since the United States and its NATO allies began pulling out their troops from Afghanistan on May 1.
The violence has killed hundreds of combatants on both sides and Afghan civilians in recent weeks.
The foreign troop drawdown is expected to be completed by September 11; a deadline set by U.S. President Joe Biden in April to end nearly 20 years of U.S. involvement in the Afghan war.
On Tuesday, the U.S. military announced it had completed more than half of the retrograde process.
The drawdown stems from the February 2020 agreement Washington negotiated with the Taliban in return for counterterrorism guarantees.
The insurgents also pledged to negotiate a political settlement with other Afghan rivals to end four decades of war in the country.
But the intra-Afghan dialogue process, which started last September, has met with little success amid fears the Taliban would intensify their campaign to regain power once all U.S. and NATO troops are out of Afghanistan.