Masked gunmen went from bed to bed, brutally killing 10 demining workers with the HALO Trust in Afghanistan’s northern province of Baghlan, and wounding more than a dozen before Taliban responded and chased them off, BBC News reported.
Officials said the attackers targeted members of the Hazara ethnic minority group, after they burst into their compound at 21:50 (17:20 GMT) on Tuesday, after they had spent a day removing mines from a nearby field.
The Islamic State group (ISIL) said via its channels on the messaging app Telegram that it had carried out the attack, the report said.
While Afghan officials blamed the Taliban, HALO Trust CEO James Cowan told the BBC that the local Taliban had, in fact, helped in the aftermath.
The UK-based HALO group gained fame, gathering support from Princess Diana, as well as by her son Prince Harry.
It was founded in 1988 to remove ordnance left behind from the almost decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Violence has surged in Afghanistan since the US began to withdraw its last troops on May 1, the report said.
The departure of international troops comes amid a deadlock in peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Cowan told BBC Radio 4 that the attackers had gone “bed to bed” shooting the workers “in cold blood” — but that the local Taliban had helped the de-miners.
“I think it’s important to know that the Taliban have denied responsibility for this, and indeed the local Taliban group came to our aid and scared the assailants off,” he said.
“I think we have the capacity as the HALO Trust to operate on both sides of the line in this awful conflict,” he added.
Cowan later told the BBC Afghan service that the attackers had specifically targeted members of the Hazara ethnic minority group, the report said.
Hazaras, Afghanistan’s third-largest ethnic group, have faced long-term discrimination and persecution, primarily because of their Shia Muslim faith.
In recent years, they have faced abductions and killings at the hands of IS and the Taliban, which are both Sunni Muslim.
“A group of armed men came to our camp and sought out members of the Hazara community, and then murdered them,” Cowan said. “This was not expected. The broader security situation [in Afghanistan] is understood, but this kind of cold-blooded killing was not expected.”
After an interior ministry spokesman told reporters that the Taliban had carried out the attack, the militant group’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, tweeted that it condemned attacks on the defenceless.
“We have normal relations with NGOs [non-governmental organisations]. Our Mujahideen will never carry out such brutal attacks,” he said.
HALO Trust and other demining organizations have been working in Afghanistan for more than three decades, freely moving even near frontlines, the report said.
Warring factions have been helpful to deminers in the past — however it has been rare for the Taliban or other groups to come forward to help victims of an attack.
HALO Trust mostly hires local people, which also creates jobs for local communities.
The United Nations Resident Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan Ramiz Alakbarov condemned what he said was a “heinous attack” on HALO workers.
“It is repugnant that an organization that works to clear landmines and other explosives and better the lives of vulnerable people could be targeted,” he said in a statement.
The trust was heavily supported by Princess Diana and the Duke of Sussex has also been a patron of its work.
The charity rose to prominence in 1997 when Diana, Princess of Wales, visited a minefield in Angola being cleared by HALO shortly before her death.
The photo of the princess in the minefield remains one of the most famous images of her.
Jawid Mazlomyar, 30, who has worked with HALO for more than a decade, described the bloody and chaotic scene that unfolded around him, New York Times reported.
He said that the armed attackers had rounded up those in the demining camp and cut off the power before ransacking the occupants’ belongings and taking their cellphones and money.
“They were screaming and insulting us and saying, ‘Who is your manager? Tell us, otherwise we are killing you,’” Mazlomyar said.
Then, consistent with previous attacks by the Islamic State in Afghanistan, the attackers asked who among those in the camp were Hazaras, a persecuted, largely Shiite minority in the country.
Last month, the Islamic State was accused of attacking a primarily Hazara school in Kabul, the capital, killing more than 80 people, most of them teenage girls.
“We told them that we are Muslim and every day we are praying,” Mazlomyar said. “They asked again, and we responded that there is no Hazara and we all are Muslims. At that time, they started firing.”
Mazlomyar added that, in the end, the attackers did not single anyone out.
“They killed everyone,” he said.
Sources: BBC News, The Mirror, Al Jazeera, New York Times, The Telegraph