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Militants ambush foreign tourists in Afghanistan

AFGHANISTAN: Two foreign tourists, (center), wounded during a Taleban militant attack, are treated at a hospital in the western Herat province yesterday. —AFP
AFGHANISTAN: Two foreign tourists, (center), wounded during a Taleban militant attack, are treated at a hospital in the western Herat province yesterday. —AFP

HERAT, Afghanistan: Taleban militants attacked a group of 12 American and European tourists escorted by an Afghan army convoy in western Herat province yesterday, leaving at least seven people wounded as the insurgents step up nationwide attacks. The tourists-eight British, three Americans and one German national-were ambushed by Taleban gunmen in the restive district of Chesht-e-Sharif, while en route from the neighboring provinces of Bamiyan and Ghor. It is unclear why they were travelling overland at a time when Western embassies typically warn their citizens against all travel in Afghanistan, citing threats of kidnapping and attacks.

“The foreign tourists-three Americans, six Britons, two Scots and one German-were travelling with an Afghan army convoy when they were ambushed by the Taleban in Chesht-e-Sharif,” said Jilani Farhad, the spokesman for Herat’s governor. He said the insurgents had been repelled and the foreigners were being escorted to Herat city, adding that at least six foreigners and their Afghan driver were left wounded.

The attack comes as Taleban militants intensify their annual summer offensive after a brief lull during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, which ended in early July. Highways in Afghanistan passing through insurgency-prone areas have become exceedingly dangerous, with the Taleban and other armed groups frequently kidnapping or killing travellers. But that has not stopped some tourists, including foreigners, from travelling to Afghanistan, endowed with stunning landscapes and archaeological sites, many of them in volatile areas prone to the Taleban insurgency.

The Guardian newspaper reported the tourists came to Afghanistan with Hinterland Travel, an England-based adventure travel company which offers tours passing through central and north Afghanistan as well as volatile lapis mines in the country. The company was not immediately reachable for comment. Its latest 21-day tour passing through “glorious, stark mountain passes” in Bamiyan and Herat started on July 26, according to its website.

James Willcox, founder of another England-based adventure travel operator Untamed Borders, said his agency stopped using the Bamiyan-Herat road in 2009 because “it was just not safe”. Bamiyan, famous for empty hillside niches that once sheltered giant Buddha statues that were blown up by the Taleban, is at the center of Afghan efforts to boost tourism revenue. A vast, ancient landscape of russet-hued cliffs, Bamiyan is a rare oasis of tranquility but it is wedged between insurgency-hit districts.

Growing insecurity
The United States has warned its citizens in Afghanistan of a “very high” kidnapping risk after an American citizen narrowly escaped abduction in the heart of Kabul. Yesterday’s attack follows a Taleban truck bombing on Monday at a hotel for foreigners in Kabul, which triggered a seven-hour gun and grenade assault that highlighted growing insecurity in the city. The guests and staff of the Northgate hotel escaped unharmed, but one policeman was killed after the suicide truck bomber paved the way for two other armed insurgents to enter the heavily guarded facility near Kabul airport.

The attack was a grim reminder of growing insecurity in Afghanistan since most foreign troops withdrew in 2014. The rising violence has resulted in large Afghan civilian casualties. Foreigners are also increasingly being targeted as the conflict escalates. American journalist David Gilkey and his Afghan translator were killed in June while travelling with an Afghan army unit that came under fire in southern Helmand province. Aid workers in particular have increasingly been casualties of a surge in militant violence in recent years.

Judith D’Souza, a 40-year-old Indian charity worker, was rescued in late July, more than a month after she was taken at gunpoint near her residence in the heart of Kabul. D’Souza’s abduction came after Katherine Jane Wilson, a well-known Australian NGO worker, was kidnapped on April 28 in the city of Jalalabad, close to the border with Pakistan. In 2007, the Taleban seized 23 South Korean aid workers from a church group travelling through southern Afghanistan. The militants killed two men before releasing the rest, reportedly in return for ransom payments.-AFP

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