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Afghan police hunt medics' killers

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 08 August 2010

The bodies of the eight medics killed in Afghanistan, including Briton Dr Karen Woo who was engaged to married, are due to be flown to Kabul today. Channel 4 News speaks to Dr Woo's friend of the "huge shock".

The bodies of the eight medics killed in Afghanistan, including Briton Dr Karen Woo who was engaged to married, are due to be flown to Kabul today (Image: Facebook)

The Christian aid group International Assistance Mission (IAM) said today it was coordinating efforts to recover the dead with the United States embassy.

"We just heard news from the American embassy that they are going to recover the bodies today. Yesterday they tried but the weather was not good enough for helicopter to go in, so hopefully the bodies will be back in Kabul today," said Dirk Frans chief executive of IAM.

The medical team of three women and five men included six US citizens and a German, alongside Dr Woo. Two of their four Afghan interpreters were also killed.

The Taliban has claimed responsibility for their deaths and accused the medics of pushing a Christian agenda.

Dr Woo's family said in a statement that she had no religious or political agenda working in Afghanistan, but was a humanist that "wanted the world to know there was more than a war going on in Afghanistan".

Following the death of Dr Woo, Foreign Secretary William Hague said today: "We can confirm the murder of a British female doctor in Northern Afghanistan. She was killed with a number of other health aid workers. This is a deplorable and cowardly act which is against the interests of the people of Afghanistan who depended on the services she was bravely helping to provide. Our thoughts are with her family and friends at this tragic time."

Was the Taliban responsible? Alex Thomson reports

The group were members of the charity International Assistance Mission (IAM). "The team had been in Nuristan at the invitation of communities there. After having completed their medical work the team was returning to Kabul," IAM said.

Police chief General Agha Noor Kemtuz said local police have arrested a convoy driver in the hunt for the killers of group.

Mr Frans said the team had decided to head back towards the capital through Badakhshan, thought to be the safest route, when they were ambushed by gunmen.

Eight medics have been killed in Afghanistan

Dr Woo: "the effort is worth it"
Dr Woo, 36, was due to return home to be married in two weeks, it emerged today. Last night her devastated fiance Paddy Smith, who also works in Kabul, told the Mail on Sunday: "Karen grabbed life by the horns. She went to one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan just to help people. That was the sort of girl she was. She was focused and professional."

Dr Woo's family added: "Karen, you were an inspiration to everyone you met. You combined brains and beauty, intelligence, drive and kookiness in equal measure. You led an intensely packed and rich life: dancer, model, stunt plane walker, doctor and aid worker. Whatever you set your mind on, you did so with passion."

Alongside her work for IAM, Dr Woo was also a member of Bridge Afghanistan - a group of professional doctors, journalists and writers working to attract aid for Afghanistan. The  non-profit group named Dr Woo as one of the dead today. 

The group, whose slogan is "doing something is better than nothing", said on its website today: "Unfortunately Karen was part of the group that were killed whilst delivering aid and medical care in Nuristan of Afghanistan. We are distressed and deeply disturb (sic) by sad news We thank everyone for thinking of Karen at this time."

Dr Woo, who was planning a documentary, wrote on the charity's forum: "For the last few months I've been working with a small team of journalists and filmmakers as part of Bridge Afghanistan to put together a plan for the documentary I envisioned."

Friend in shock
Dr Karen Woo was an experienced surgeon who had previously worked at St Mary's Hospital in London and was a medical director for BUPA.  She gave up that position to travel to Afghanistan and work for a charity delivering medical equipment to remote areas. 

Today one of her friends, Phillip French, who helped her fundraise for the trip told Channel 4 News:  "This is just a huge shock.  It's still sinking in really.  She was due back by Monday when I was going to see her for a fundraising dinner.  She knew there were dangers but felt it was a relatively safe area and she was determined to go".
Dr Woo was also making a video documentary of her work in Afghanistan and wrote a blog of her experiences in Afghanistan.  Following a double suicide blast near her clinic last December she wrote:  "Why don't the insurgents just f*** off and stop being so selfish!". 

Just before she left she commented on her blog:  "So, I'm busily preparing for the trek to Nuristan and also manoeuvring around the chaos that is Kabul... We found out a couple of days ago that there is still a lot of snow on the pass and the horses won't be able to go all the way over. We had planned for the horses to carry the bulk of our kit (and there's a lot of it) so now, when their little hooves can go no further, we'll be lugging it over the pass ourselves. The image of a straggly band of people labouring through the snow at 16,000 feet comes to mind but seems so very remote and painless as I sit at my desk in Kabul - I know it's going to hurt but I just can't imagine it right now". 

Dr Woo, who was the took the role of general physician in the team of medics, had been running mother and child clinics in Nuristan. She had been trekking for over three weeks as part of an expedition into the mountains, she wrote in a blog last month.

She added: "The expedition will require a lot of physical and mental resolve and will not be without risk but ultimately, I believe that the provision of medical treatment is of fundamental importance and that the effort is worth it in order to assist those that need it most."

While the foreign office has yet to officially confirm the identity of the dead, IAM said it was likely the dead were members of its eye camp team. "If these reports are confirmed we object to this senseless killing of people who have done nothing but serve the poor," the charity said on its website.

"Some of the foreigners have worked alongside the Afghan people for decades. This tragedy negatively impacts our ability to continue serving the Afghan people as IAM has been doing since 1966," it added.

IAM helps more than a quarter of a million Afghans every year.

Among the dead is team leader American Tom Little, an optician from New York who came to Afghanistan in 1979 with his wife and five year old daughter as missionaires to help wayward hippies.

He and his family remained in the country ever since, where he worked as an optician for the National Organisation for Ophthalmic Rehabilitation (NOOR) in Kabul.

Mr Little's widow Libby teaches at an international school in Kabul, according to NOOR's website, while one of his three daughters, Nelika, works for an NGO that helped oversee the 2005 elections.

The Taliban claimed responsibility and accused the medical workers of proselytising Christianity. Mr Frans however told AP that IAM is registered as a non-profit Christian organization but does not proselytise.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, told Reuters that bibles translated into Dari had been found in the group's possession.

Abandoning Afghanistan
In 2004, the French medical charity Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF), pulled out of Afghanistan after the tragic shooting of five MSF staff members.

A spokesman for MSF today told Channel 4 News that re-entering Afghanistan last year was "very sensitive" for the group.

"I have heard the really sad news, we had a similar thing a few years ago and we are just rebuilding our presence. For that reason we are not commenting today," he said.

MSF did not return to the country until last year, having worked "nearly without interruption" alongside the Afghan people since 1980.

Announcing their withdrawal at the time, MSF's secretary general Marine Buissonnière said: "It is with outrage and bitterness that we take the decision to abandon them. But we simply cannot sacrifice the security of our volunteers while warring parties seek to rage and kill humanitarian workers. Ultimately, it is the sick and destitute who suffer."

The MSF members were shot and killed on the road between Khairkhana and Qala-i-Naw in northwestern Badghis province. The Taliban later claimed responsibility.

MSF decided to close all of its medical projects in Afghanistan at the end of August 2004. MSF said it decided to return, five years later, because "the overall situation for Afghan was getting worse rather than better".

"The country is becoming more insecure, and access to health services is problematic for large numbers of Afghans," it added.

IAM's director Mr Frans said today he had no plans to pull IAM out of Afghanistan. "Based on the outcome we will of course review our security instructions, I mean, we do that on the day today basis because the situation is so fluid on the ground, but I think it is highly unlikely that we would withdraw from Afghanistan.

"We have been here when the king was in power, when the Russians were in power, when the Mujahuddin were  fighting here in Kabul under the Taliban and all the time we have stayed and I think it is highly unlikely that IAM will leave," he said.

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