Journalists become targets in chaotic Afghanistan

Four journalists and an Afghan translator were seized yesterday on the way to Kabul.

The risks of reporting in a war zone were underscored yesterday with reports of four journalists and an Afghan translator missing and possibly killed in Afghanistan.

A loose convoy of half a dozen cars carrying journalists from the eastern city of Jalalabad to Kabul was stopped yesterday morning by armed men at an informal checkpoint. According to the driver of the lead car - who managed to escape - the armed men forced the journalists out of the two lead cars, threw stones at them, hit them with rifle butts, and later shot them.

Reuters news agency says that two of its journalists are missing - Australian television cameraman Harry Burton and Azizullah Haidari, an Afghan-born photographer. Also missing are Julio Fuentes, of the Spanish daily El Mundo, and Maria Grazia Cutuli, of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, the two papers said. And an Afghan translator, Humayun, who was traveling with the group, is missing.

The driver could not say for sure if these journalists were dead or alive, but busloads of travelers coming from Kabul to Jalalabad say they saw the bodies of three foreigners and one Afghan on the road.

"There were men who had guns on the bridge at Pul -e-Stekham," said the driver, Mahmud Farooq, speaking last night after his return to Jalalabad. "They took the journalists out of the car and told them to come with them into the mountains. The gunmen started throwing stones at them. Then I heard shots, and I escaped."

In the power vacuum that the Taliban left after ceding power more than a week ago, it is difficult to know just who might be responsible for such acts. The attackers could have been members of the Taliban or Arabs from Al Qaeda or bandits, or rogue members of the mujahideen.

What is certain is that Afghanistan's law-and-order situation has deteriorated in the absence of a central authority, with dire consequences for civilians, soldiers, Afghans, and foreigners alike. A German and two French journalists were killed Nov. 11 while riding on a Northern Alliance armored personnel carrier near Taloqan, in northern Afghanistan. They were reportedly killed by Taliban troops.

Prior to yesterday, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that 17 journalists have been killed this year worldwide.

Yesterday's incident shows that even everyday affairs in Afghanistan, such as moving onto the next city and the next story, can have substantial risks.

Surrounded on both sides by breathtaking mountain passes, the road to Kabul is certainly a bandit's dream. Those who travel between Jalalabad have no alternative routes, just the 140-kilometer stretch of unpaved and uneven gravel - narrow switchbacks where Soviet bombings, mujahideen land mines, and erosion have washed away the pavement.

For a small group of men with weapons, it is a perfect environment for trapping unarmed travelers for murder or profit. But since the road travels through three separate provinces, much of it uncontrolled by either the Taliban or the mujahideen, anti-Taliban authorities now advise all journalists to travel with military escorts.

The bandits seem to be targeting travelers indiscriminately. Zamari, an Afghan taxi driver from Kabul, who arrived in Jalalabad yesterday evening, says that he was stopped by a small boy who ran out into the road at Pul-e- Stekham. The boy was followed by seven or eight heavily armed men who demanded that Zamari stop his car. Zamari says he drove off and the gunman shot at his car several times, leaving two visible bullet holes.

A group of 30 armed mujahideen went to find the missing journalists, but returned to Jalalabad last night empty handed. They were told by locals when they reached the border of the neighboring province that it was "unsafe to proceed."

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