Gunmen kill 10 mine-clearing workers, Taliban deny involvement

KABUL (AFP): Masked gunmen massacred 10 people working for the HALO Trust mine-clearing organisation in northern Afghanistan, as per the country’s interior ministry on Wednesday.

The interior ministry was quick to blame the Taliban for the violence, alleging that the latest attack was the outfit’s doing.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, however, strongly denied the group were involved in the attack and condemned the incident.

“The Taliban entered a compound of a mine-clearing agency… and started shooting everyone,” interior ministry spokesman Tareq Arian told reporters.

The UK-based HALO Trust told AFP “an unknown armed group” killed 10 staff and wounded 16 others.

The Taliban spokesperson condemned the incident on Twitter.

“We condemn attacks on the defenseless & view it as brutality,” he tweeted. “We have normal relations with NGOs, our Mujahidin will never carry out such brutal acts.”

The raid happened around 10 pm (1730 GMT) Tuesday when dozens of deminers were relaxing in the HALO compound after a day spent removing ordnance from nearby minefields, around 260 kilometres (160 miles) north of the capital, Kabul.

“Around 110 men, from local communities in northern Afghanistan, were in the camp,” HALO said.

Baghlan province governor’s spokesman Jawed Basharat told AFP the attackers wore masks.

Baghlan province has seen fierce fighting in recent months, with near-daily battles between the Taliban and government forces in several districts.

In several districts where fighting has been intense in recent months, the insurgents have planted roadside bombs and mines to target government forces, but the explosives often kill and wound civilians.

Afghanistan was already one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, a legacy of decades of conflict.

The HALO Trust was founded in 1988 specifically to tackle ordnance left following the near ten-year Soviet occupation, and became a favourite cause of Britain’s Princess Diana.

The organisation’s website says it has an Afghan workforce of more than 2,600 and has removed landmines from nearly 80% of the country´s recorded minefields and battlefields.