A group of Afghan charity workers were shot dead as they slept in the early hours of Tuesday morning at a guesthouse in the northern Balkh province, the latest in a string of attacks since the Taliban's spring offensive kicked off in late April.
Gunmen burst into guests' rooms at around 2am local time, killing nine Afghans working for the Czech aid organization People in Need — five project staff, two guards and two drivers, according to the charity's country director Ross Hollister. They were working "building schools, hospitals, water projects," said Hollister, as part of the Afghan government's National Security Program which oversees infrastructure and rural development across the impoverished nation.
In a statement the charity said the assault was "unprecedented in its brutality" and announced it was suspending work in Afghanistan.
Government officials blamed the Taliban for the attack. The militant group said it was looking at details of the attack and could not immediately comment, reported Reuters.
The attack is the third on a guesthouse in as many weeks, following an announcement by the Taliban that they would target places used by foreign forces as the 13-year war intensifies across the country. Fourteen people, including nine foreigners, were killed at the Park Palace hotel in Kabul on May 14, while another attack by gunmen on a guesthouse in the capital was repelled by security forces on May 26.
Balkh province has seen a surge in violence since the Taliban launched this year's offensive. A revitalized insurgency in the region appears to be using a new strategy of sending much larger numbers of troops to fight and hold territory. According to Afghan officials the Taliban has linked up with other extremist groups, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the East Turkestan Independence Movement.
This is first annual fighting season Afghan security forces have faced without the support of foreign combat troops. 2014 saw the withdrawal of the majority of international forces from Afghanistan, leaving just advisors and small garrisons.
The build-up to the withdrawal last year was a bloody period for Afghanistan, with more than 10,000 civilians were killed or injured in 2014 according to the United Nations. The Afghan Army lost 15,636 personnel — 8.5 percent of the force — between February and March through death, injury or desertion, reported Reuters.
Afghan civilian casualties rose by 16 percent in the first four months of 2015, with 974 people killed and a further 1,963 wounded, according to United Nations figures.
According to a new briefing from Costs of War — an ongoing project by Brown University's Watson Institute documenting the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan — an estimated 92,000 people have been killed as a direct result of the war in Afghanistan since the 2001 US-led invasion that overthrew the Taliban regime. The war in in Afghanistan is not ending, in fact "it is getting worse," said the project's co-director Neta Crawford.
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Associated Press contributed to this report.
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