Six employees of the International Committee of the Red Cross were killed and two others were missing on Wednesday after an attack in northern Afghanistan that officials attributed to local affiliates of the Islamic State.
“This is a despicable act. Nothing can justify the murder of our colleagues and dear friends,” Monica Zanarelli, the head of the Red Cross delegation in Afghanistan, said. “At this point, it’s premature for us to determine the impact of this appalling incident on our operations in Afghanistan.”
The Taliban, who still inflict the largest share of violence in a 15-year war that has escalated in recent years, quickly denied that they were behind the attack.
The Red Cross has a 30-year history of helping war victims in Afghanistan, providing crucial medical aid to areas near the battlefield, among other things. The insurgency also relies on Red Cross volunteers to retrieve the bodies of its dead in large parts of the country and to help families of its detainees communicate with them in prison.
But in a recent report, the Red Cross expressed concerns about “the shrinking access of humanitarian aid workers in numerous parts of the country” because of “the intensification of conflict-related violence.”
The governor of Jowzjan Province, Lutfullah Azizi, blamed affiliates of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, for the attack.
Mr. Azizi said that the Red Cross had begun a mission to distribute livestock material in the Qush Tepah area of Jowzjan Province, where the attack happened, but that its work was paused by recent avalanches. When workers went to resume giving out aid, they were targeted.
“They were a team of eight people in three vehicles, including three drivers and five staff,” Mr. Azizi said. “Islamic State attacked the convoy, killed the three drivers and three staff members on the spot and took two staff members with them.”
Mr. Azizi said Qush Tepah, about 37 miles from the provincial capital, is rife with militant groups, including five Islamic State factions with about 200 fighters total.
Officials and analysts were conflicted about the Islamic State’s initial forays in Afghanistan. Beginning in 2015, Pakistanis and Afghans who were former Taliban members started wreaking havoc, claiming affiliation to the terrorist group. Major military operations were started to keep the Islamic State’s foothold mostly restricted to several districts in eastern provinces.
Over the last year, the concern about the group has increased as it has claimed some deadly suicide attacks in urban centers. The United Nations said that in 2016 there was a tenfold jump in civilian casualties caused in attacks claimed by the Islamic State.
The group issued a statement on Wednesday claiming the latest deadly attack in Kabul, which killed at least 21 people near the country’s Supreme Court.
In recent weeks, officials in northern Afghanistan also have expressed concern about an increase in foreign fighters there, many of them suspected of affiliation with the Islamic State.
Sarwar Hussaini, a spokesman for the northern police zone, said there were about 600 foreign fighters in five northern provinces.
“They are fighting for both the Islamic State and the Taliban, as well as some other terrorist group,” Mr. Hussaini said. “The foreign fighter started coming to the north of Afghanistan about three years ago, and now we are worried about the number of foreign fighters who are active here.”