By Kim Gamel
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN: An Afghan police commander opened fire Friday on two Associated Press journalists, killing Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Anja Niedringhaus and wounding veteran correspondent Kathy Gannon — the first known case of a security insider attacking journalists in Afghanistan.
Niedringhaus, 48, who had covered conflict zones from the Balkans in the 1990s to Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, died instantly of her wounds.
Gannon, 60, who for many years was the news organization’s Afghanistan bureau chief and currently is a special correspondent for the region, was shot three times in the wrists and shoulder. After surgery, she was in stable condition and spoke to medical personnel before being flown to Kabul.
Niedringhaus and Gannon had worked together repeatedly in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, covering the conflict from some of the most dangerous hot spots of the Taliban insurgency. They often focused on the war’s impact on Afghan civilians, and they embedded several times with the Afghan police and military, reporting on the Afghan government’s determination to build up its often ill-equipped forces to face the fight against militants.
Gannon, who had sources inside the Taliban leadership, was one of the few Western reporters allowed into Afghanistan during the militant group’s rule in the 1990s.
The two journalists were traveling in a convoy of election workers delivering ballots in the eastern city of Khost, under the protection of Afghan security forces. They were in their own car with a translator and an AP Television News freelancer waiting for the convoy to move after arriving at the heavily guarded security forces base in eastern Afghanistan.
A unit commander identified by authorities as Naqibullah walked up to the car, yelled “Allahu Akbar” — God is Great — and fired on them in the back seat with his AK-47, said the freelance videographer, who witnessed the attack, which left the rear door of the car riddled with bullet holes. The officer then surrendered to the other police and was arrested.
While there have been repeated cases in recent years of Afghan police or military personnel opening fire on and killing international troops working with the country’s security forces, Friday’s attack was the first known insider shooting of journalists.
Past attacks have been carried out by suspected Taliban infiltrators or Afghans who have come to oppose the foreign presence in the country. At their worst, in 2012, there was an average of nearly one a week, killing more than 60 coalition troops and prompting NATO to reduce joint operations with Afghan forces.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied responsibility for Friday’s attack. Khost police said the 25-year-old attacker confessed to the shooting and told authorities he was acting to avenge the deaths of family members in a NATO bombing.