Nine Afghan employees of a government development program, including a woman, have been killed by militants who attacked their guesthouse in a remote village of northern Afghanistan's Balkh Province.
The attack took place early on June 2 at a field office of the Czech humanitarian organization People In Need, which is located in the village of Arab in Balkh's rural Zari district.
Balkh Province's police chief spokesman, Shir Jan Durrani, confirmed that seven victims were from Afghanistan's National Solidarity Program, a central government initiative that oversees rural development projects across the country and has been working with People In Need since 2005.
He said the two others victims were security guards who had been traveling with the government workers.
Durrani also told RFE/RL that security forces launched an operation early on June 2 to try to rescue at least two aid workers who managed to escape the attackers.
In a June 2 statement, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced the deployment of Afghan Interior Ministry troops in the area to try to locate and protect those who escaped from the militants.
Heather Barr, senior researcher for HRW, described the killings as “really shocking and horrifying.”
"What we are most concerned about is the fact that this appears to be intentional targeting of civilians,” she told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "And targeting civilians is potentially a war crime."
Simon Panek, the executive director of People In Need, told RFE/RL that the victims were "Afghan colleagues" who had been staying at a compound in the Zari district where his aid group has a field office. He said the program there has been suspended.
People In Need is working with Afghanistan's National Solidarity Program on long-term sustainable development projects in the rural communities of Balkh and other Afghan provinces.
The program aims to establish elected village-level institutions, including at least one female representative, known as Community Development Councils.
Those development councils work with village elders and other community representatives to plan, build, manage, and monitor local infrastructure projects.
The goal is to create public trust in government development programs by building the capacity of village communities to plan and manage their own infrastructure needs -- such as irrigation projects or drinking wells.
Compared to other northern Afghan provinces, security in Balkh has been relatively stable for years. That is largely due to the control exerted by provincial police who are former militia fighters loyal to Balkh's acting provincial governor, Atta Mohammad Noor -- an ethnic Tajik leader from the Jamiat-e Islami faction who had been a key anti-Taliban commander in the former Northern Alliance during years of Taliban rule.
But Noor also has been in a bloody rivalry for decades with another former Northern Alliance commander whose militia fighters are in the neighboring Sar-e Pol and Jowzjan provinces, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the ethnic Uzbek leader of the Junbish-e Milli party who is now Afghanistan's vice president.
With the new leadership in Kabul poised to appoint new provincial governors, the two archrivals have been struggling to coexist in a new political environment while exploiting fissures within Afghanistan's national unity government.
The presence of militants in a remote part of Balkh Province, as well as the deployment of Afghan Interior Ministry forces in the area, could exacerbate those pressures.
Though no group immediately claimed responsibility for the June 2 killings, police spokesman Durrani told RFE/RL the attackers are thought to be Taliban and foreign fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who crossed into Balkh from the neighboring province of Sar-e Pol.
IMU factions include Uzbeks, Tajiks, Afghans, and Turkmen fighters who have sworn allegiance to the leadership of the Islamic State (IS) militant group.
Balkh Operations Launched
Durrani told RFE/RL that the slain team of Afghan government workers had arrived at the guesthouse in the remote Zari district on June 1.
He said they had not informed Balkh's security forces in advance about their visit, and that Noor's provincial police only learned about the killings when they were notified by villagers in the Zari district.
People in Need Executive Director Panek later disputed Durrani's claims, telling RFE/RL that the field office had been operating for many years.
Durrani noted that Afghan security forces in late May launched operations against militants in Balkh's remote Zari district as part of a wider campaign against the Taliban and IMU fighters who have been moving into Sar-e Pol Province in large numbers since 2014.
Many of those fighters fled from Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal regions after Pakistan's Army launched a major ground offensive there in 2014 -- crossing into southwestern Afghanistan and traveling through the western Afghanistan to reach Sar-e Pol through the northern Afghan provinces of Badghis and Faryab.
Durrani insists that Balkh's provincial police are able to maintain security across the province.
But the June 2 attack has raised concerns about Taliban and IMU militants who launched a northern Afghanistan spring offensive and continue to push into northern areas where they've not had a strong presence since late 2001.
The human rights group Amnesty International responded to the attack with a call for Afghanistan to "bolster protection" for aid workers.
Amnesty International Afghan researcher Horia Mosadiq said: "Being an aid worker in Afghanistan is an extremely risky business which will only become more dangerous if authorities fail to ensure those responsible for these disgraceful attacks face justice."
Mosadiq said failure by authorities to do so would "send the message that aid workers are a fair target."
With reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mustafa Sarwar