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NGO suspends Afghan work after slayings

KABUL, August 14 – An international aid group which has worked in Afghanistan for 25 years said it was suspending relief work after three of its female aid workers and their Afghan driver were shot dead.

The killings, claimed by the insurgent Taliban, were the deadliest here in years involving international aid staff, and came amid warnings about deteriorating security.

The women , a British-Canadian, a Canadian and a Trinidadian-American, were members of the International Rescue Committee, which works with refugees in Afghanistan.

One Afghan driver was killed and another critically wounded in Wednesday’s ambush by gunmen who shot repeatedly at their vehicle near the capital Kabul, police and their organisation said.

The IRC, headquartered in New York, said in a statement it was "stunned and profoundly saddened by this tragic loss."

"These extraordinary individuals were deeply committed to aiding the people of Afghanistan, especially the children who have seen so much strife."

It added that the group had "suspended its humanitarian aid programmes in Afghanistan indefinitely" following the slayings.

The women were being driven to Kabul in two vehicles when they came under attack near the town of Pul-i-Alam, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of the capital, Logar province police chief Ghulam Mustafa said.

A car cut in front of their vehicles and then opened fire, he told AFP.

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"Three females, foreign nationals, and an Afghan male have been killed," he told AFP.

Logar deputy police Chief Abdul Majid Latifi told AFP their vehicle had a clear IRC logo on it.

He said it appeared the attackers had broken the windows and shot them at close range.

"There were signs of about 10 bullets on the vehicle but more bullets on the body of the victims. They were hit by dozens of bullets," he said.

A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahed, said men from his militia had ambushed a two-vehicle convoy in Logar carrying "military personnel, most of them female."

"We killed several of them. They were all military," he said.

Michael Kocher, the IRC vice president for international programmes, said there had been no signs of imminent danger in the area in the days leading up to the attack.

"We work very closely with local authorities. We don’t work anywhere where we are not wanted," he told AFP.

The women, aged 31, 32 and 40, had worked around the world and had been in Gardez town "to provide technical support for children’s programmes there," he added.

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They were helping recently established schools, making sure their teachers were correctly trained, that they had enough supplies and that the curriculum was appropriate.

The IRC employs about 540 people in Afghanistan, comprised almost entirely of Afghan staff, and concentrates on education, water and sanitation, as well as community development and social programmes for children.

President Hamid Karzai condemned Wednesday’s killing as "unforgivable" and blamed "enemies of Afghan people who do not want the international community to help the poverty-hit Afghan people."

Afghanistan’s international aid community was also shocked.

"This is a senseless act of murder which is morally indefensible," said a senior foreign aid worker who asked not to be identified.

"This highlights the deterioration in security conditions, which are worse than at any point since 2001," when the hardline Taliban milita was ousted from power, the worker said.

The umbrella Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief said threats were limiting relief work in Afghanistan, which is facing drought and soaring food prices.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the latest "cowardly attack yet again shows the depravity of the Taliban, and the bleak alternative that they represent."

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