The Guardian, June 9, 2021

Gunmen kill 10 mine-clearance workers in Afghanistan

Attackers burst into Halo Trust charity’s camp in Baghlan province, killing men ‘in cold blood’

By Emma Graham-Harrison

Gunmen have killed 10 men working for the Halo Trust in northern Afghanistan, in a night-time assault that the mine-clearing charity’s head described as the worst the organisation had endured.

Attackers burst into a Halo Trust camp in Baghlan province shortly before 10pm on Tuesday, where about 110 men, mostly drawn from local communities, were resting after a day’s work clearing old explosives.

James Cowan, the charity’s CEO, described to the BBC how the killers went “bed to bed, murdering in cold blood”. He said the “horrific incident” was the worst attack in the history of the Halo Trust, which was founded in 1988 in Kabul.

The government blamed the Taliban, but the group denied any role, and Cowan said its fighters helped end the slaughter. “Indeed, the local Taliban came to our aid and scared the assailants off,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid described the men killed as martyrs, and said: “We condemn attacks on the defenceless and view it as brutality.”

Cowan said Halo would continue working in Afghanistan, where it has about 3,000 staff, and where there is still an urgent need for work to clear mines. The decades since 1988 have seen little break from war, although parties to the shifting conflict changed.

Swathes of the countryside are still contaminated by unmapped explosives that frequently kill and maim people who stumble across them, including children.

“This is a horrific incident, the worst in the Halo Trust’s history. It’s very sad, but we are here for Afghanistan. We were in Afghanistan many years before 9/11 and we will be there many years after the international withdrawal,” he said.

Violence has risen in Afghanistan this year, as the US withdraws its troops before an autumn deadline to leave the country entirely.

Biden has vowed to end America’s longest war, but for Afghans the decision to make a military exit is likely to mean more bloodshed rather than less.

Peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, launched as part of withdrawal pact Washington struck with the militants, are deadlocked.

Around Afghanistan the Taliban have been seizing territory in rural areas, and strings of targeted killings have terrified activists, journalists and intellectuals in the cities.

There have also been vicious sectarian attacks, among them a recent assault on a high school in the capital that killed dozens of young women and girls. Students came from the surrounding Hazara community, an ethnic minority who are largely Shia Muslims and have been targeted repeatedly by Isis in Afghanistan.

In a video shared by police in Baghlan, a survivor of the attack said the gunmen at the camp had asked if any of the men there were Hazaras before they opened fire, the BBC reported.

“Five to six armed men came; they took us to a room,” the BBC quoted the survivor saying. “First they took all our money and mobile phones, and then they asked who our leader was. They asked, ‘Is any Hazara here among you?’ We told them, ‘We don’t have any Hazara here’.”

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