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IS group claims deadly Afghanistan attack on tourists

By AFP

May 20, 2024 12:11 PM


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The Islamic State group on Sunday claimed responsibility for an attack targeting tourists in Afghanistan that killed three Spaniards and three Afghans.

The jihadist group said in a statement on its Telegram channels that "fighters shot at Christian tourists and their Shiite companions with machine guns" in the mountainous city of Bamiyan on Friday.

The tour group was fired on while shopping in a market in Bamiyan, around 180 kilometres (110 miles) west of the capital Kabul.

The jihadists said they attacked a "bus of tourists who are citizens of coalition countries", referring to a US-led coalition that has battled IS in the Middle East.

"The attack comes in line with the directives of the leaders of the Islamic State to target nationals of coalition countries wherever they may be," the statement added.

Taliban officials said on Saturday they had arrested seven suspects in the aftermath of the attack.

- Increased tourism -

The number of bombings and suicide attacks in Afghanistan has reduced dramatically since the Taliban authorities took power.

However, a number of armed groups, including IS, remain a threat.

The jihadists have repeatedly targeted the historically persecuted Shiite Hazara community, considering them heretics.

Hazaras make up the majority of the population in Bamiyan province, Afghanistan's top tourist destination.

The attack is believed to be the first deadly assault on foreign tourists since the Taliban returned to power in 2021 in a country where few nations have a diplomatic presence.

Increasing numbers of visitors have travelled to Afghanistan as security has improved since the Taliban ended their insurgency after ousting the Western-backed government.

The Taliban government has yet to be officially recognised by any foreign government.

It has, however, supported a fledgling tourism sector, with more than 5,000 foreign tourists visiting Afghanistan in 2023, according to official figures.

Western nations advise against all travel to the country, warning of elevated risks of kidnappings and attacks.

The group targeted in Friday's attack was made up of 13 travellers from various countries, including six Spanish nationals.

Spanish officials said Sunday that all three Spaniards killed in the attack were from Catalonia.

They included a mother and a daughter and a 63-year-old man who worked as an engineer.

An 82-year-old Spanish retiree was seriously wounded and was evacuated to a Kabul hospital operated by the Italian NGO Emergency, where she and others injured in the attack were stabilised.

"She is progressing favourably from her injuries, but her prognosis is uncertain," the Spanish foreign ministry said.

Jose Manuel Albares, Spain's foreign minister, said Sunday on X that he "strongly condemns" the IS attack and would "work to ensure that these crimes do not go unpunished."

"The two unharmed Spaniards are now out of Afghanistan. The operation to repatriate the rest of the Spanish victims is still underway," he added.

Spanish diplomats had travelled to Afghanistan and had been working to repatriate the bodies of the dead and transfer the wounded, in coordination with a European Union delegation in Kabul.

The Spanish embassy in Kabul was evacuated in 2021, along with other Western missions, after the Taliban took back control of the Afghan capital.

Survivor recounts attack

When she first heard the gunshots, French tourist Anne-France Brill thought for a split second there was a celebration in the Afghan market where she and her fellow travellers stopped to buy fruit.

But then she heard one of her companions screaming and "realised she had blood all over her stomach."

The 55-year-old had been sitting in a van during a group tour in the mountainous city of Bamiyan on Friday evening when a gunman approached their vehicles and opened fire.

Brill was unhurt, but the Lithuanian woman next to her was hit.

"She had gone completely white," Brill said. "She was saying, 'I'm cold, I'm cold... I'm going to die'."

The spray of gunfire only lasted seconds, Brill recalled, followed by long minutes of uncertainty crouching on the floor of the van, wondering what had happened, if it was over, what to do.

"There was blood everywhere," Brill told AFP on the phone.

A Norwegian man in the van had also been wounded, and their driver had been killed.

He was one of six gunned down in the attack claimed on Sunday by the Islamic State group: three Spanish tourists, two Afghan men working with the tour agency and a Taliban security official who returned fire on the gunman.

Suddenly, Taliban authorities swarmed the street, cordoning off and clearing the road.

As they approached the car where Brill and the others were, they still weren't sure if they were safe.

"But we didn't have a choice (but to get out) as we had wounded" in the van.

- Evacuation to Kabul -

The wounded were bundled into the back of Taliban authorities' trucks and rushed to the hospital in Bamiyan, and later to Kabul, around 180 kilometres (110 miles) away.

Brill said she and other tourists who escaped unhurt were given a security escort overnight to Kabul, where they were taken in by a European Union delegation.

Before leaving Bamiyan, she helped gather the belongings of those killed and wounded, including from the site of the attack.

"They were covered in blood, but it's so important for the families, so we tried to recover what we could," she said.

One item stuck out, the backpack of a young Spanish woman, who had come on the trip with her mother. Both of them were killed.

Spanish diplomats arrived quickly in Kabul to help to repatriate the bodies of the dead, the foreign ministry said.

Brill and two Americans took early flights out of Kabul to Dubai on Saturday, the shock taking its different tolls on the group.

"I cried my eyes out in front of the conveyor belt in Dubai, my suitcase was spinning, and all of a sudden, boom," she said.

"I had to let go and say to myself, 'That's it, now I'm safe'," she said, speaking from Dubai.

- Fledgling tourism industry -

An avid traveller drawn to places off the beaten path, Brill had thought for a while of visiting Afghanistan, one of the scores of foreign tourists drawn to experience the country's rich landscapes, history and culture long rendered virtually unreachable by decades of war.

More than two years after the Taliban ended their insurgency, ousting the Western-backed government, "it seemed possible", said Brill, who lives just outside Paris but whose career in marketing took her all over the world.

Used to travelling independently, she still opted for a tour group -- conscious of the challenges of visiting Afghanistan, a country with poor infrastructure, dilapidated health services, tight Taliban government controls, little diplomatic presence and lingering security threats.

The attack on Brill's group was the first reported deadly assault on foreign tourists in Afghanistan since the return of the Taliban to power in 2021, the authorities encouraging travellers and a fledgling tourism sector.

The group had arrived in Kabul on Wednesday, with Bamiyan their first stop outside the Afghan capital to see the famed remnants of the 1,500-year-old giant Buddhas destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban during their first rule.

She and her companions had been just getting to know each other, trading tips over WhatsApp before arriving, then sharing their first Afghan meals as they looked forward to stops in the cities of Herat and Kandahar.

But instead of bonding through their travels, the group is now tied together over haunting memories, their WhatsApp messages sharing word of their wounded companions.

"An experience like that, when something like that happens to you, it creates bonds," she said.


AFP


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