Masked gunmen stormed the compound of a minesweeper organization in northern Afghanistan, killing at least 10 workers and injuring 16 others.
There were 110 workers in the HALO Trust charity camp in Baghlan province at the time of the attack Tuesday evening.
James Cowan, chief executive of the British organization, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that the gunmen “wanted to find specific people of a particular ethnic group”.
The government blamed the Taliban for the attack, but the armed group denied responsibility. There have been no claims of liability.
HALO Trust said the group’s fighters had really helped end the raid, which happened when dozens of deminers were relaxing at the complex after a day spent searching for artillery in the area.
“The local Taliban have actually come to our assistance, and the Taliban themselves have denied their responsibility – so my suspicion is that it is a different organization,” Cowan said.
A survivor told the AFP news agency that five or six gunmen climbed the compound walls and gathered them all together before asking if Hazara was present.
“No one responded,” said the survivor, who asked not to be identified.
He said gunmen had asked the compound chief to identify himself, before shooting him dead.
“After one of them said ‘kill them all,'” he added. “When they opened fire, we all tried to flee. Some were killed and others, like me, were injured.”
The Shia Hazara community in Afghanistan – a group that accounts for up to 15 percent of Afghanistan’s estimated population of 30 million – is often targeted by ISIL group (ISIS) fighters, who consider them heretics.
An official in the area said most of the surviving workers fled to neighboring villages after the attack and that police were working to help them.
“Afghanistan’s largest program.”
Fighting between the Taliban and government forces has been raging across Afghanistan – including Baghlan – since May 1, when the U.S. military began its latest troop retreat amid a stalemate in peace negotiations between Kabul and the armed group.
On Wednesday, Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh accused the Taliban of attacking the HALO base, accusing in a tweet that the group’s fighters wanted to “steal money and unexploded devices” from the compound.
The Taliban have rejected the government’s accusation.
“We condemn the attacks on the defenseless and see it as brutal,” spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Twitter.
“We have normal relations with NGOs. Our Mujahideen will never carry out such brutal acts.”
In several districts where fighting has been intense in recent months, fighters have planted bombs and roadside mines to target government forces, but the explosives often kill and injure civilians.
Afghanistan was already one of the most undermined countries in the world, a legacy of decades of conflict.
The HALO Trust was founded in 1988 specifically to address the ornaments left after Soviet occupation for nearly 10 years.
“Afghanistan is our biggest program, we have almost 3000 employees here, they are very proud of the fact that they are Afghans,” Cowan said. “They come from different communities in Afghanistan and are doing an extraordinary job of saving lives.”
United Nations Resident Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan Ramiz Alakbarov has condemned what he described as a “hateful attack” on HALO workers.
“It is repugnant that an organization working to eliminate mines and other explosives and improve the lives of vulnerable people could be targeted,” he said in a statement.
In another incident, an Afghan army helicopter went on Wednesday in Wardak province, west of the capital, Kabul, killing three crew members on board, the defense minister said.
The Taliban said their fighters had killed the helicopter, but the minister said the helicopter was trying to land as a matter of urgency after developing a technical problem when it crashed.