Six Afghan staff members of the International Committee of the Red Cross were shot and killed and two others abducted in northern Afghanistan on Wednesday, officials said.
The killings took place as the Red Cross convoy was distributing livestock in a remote district of Jowzjan province, in an area where Islamic State terrorists are known to operate.
The provincial governor, Lotfullah Azizi, said three of the humanitarian agency’s employees and three drivers were shot at close range while two others were unaccounted for and believed to have been kidnapped by Islamic State fighters.
ICRC issued a statement condemning “what appears to be a deliberate attack on our staff,” although it said it did not know who was to blame.
“This is a huge tragedy,” said the group’s president, Peter Maurer. “We are in shock.”
The ICRC staff members had traveled to the region earlier in the week to distribute livestock and other supplies to areas that had been hard hit by heavy snowfall, but bad weather interrupted their work.
“Today they went to resume their work, but they fell to the hands of Daesh,” Azizi said, using an acronym for Islamic State.
ICRC usually travels in marked vehicles in Afghanistan and does not ask for official security. Despite worsening violence and occasional attacks against international relief agencies, the Red Cross has generally been allowed to operate even in terrorist-controlled areas, thanks to its reputation for impartiality.
In 2013, a compound belonging to the group was attacked by suicide bombers in the eastern city of Jalalabad, killing a guard and injuring another employee. In December, a Spanish Red Cross employee was abducted in the northern province of Kunduz. He was freed last month.
The head of the Red Cross’ Afghanistan delegation, Monica Zanarelli, said it had not decided whether to suspend its operations in the country, saying such a move would be premature.
“We want to collect ourselves as a team and support each other in processing this incomprehensible act and finding our two unaccounted-for colleagues,” Zanarelli said.
Provincial authorities were speaking with local elders to attempt to negotiate the release of the two staff members, officials said.
Terrorists claiming allegiance to Islamic State, the Sunni Muslim terrorist organization based in Iraq and Syria, are scattered across parts of northern and eastern Afghanistan and have carried out increasingly brazen attacks in recent months. The group has typically targeted minority Shiite Muslims.
The attack came a day after a suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance to the Afghan Supreme Court building in Kabul, killing 19 people and injuring more than 40.