Em­bed­ding turned deadly for NPR pho­to­jour­nal­ist in Afghanistan


LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) – The NPR pho­to­jour­nal­ist and his Afghan col­league killed in Afghanistan on Sun­day died on the first day of an em­bed with lo­cal troops, high­light­ing the risks for re­porters in a coun­try where in­creas­ing amounts of ter­ri­tory are off-lim­its.

Photographer David Gilkey and Zabi­hul­lah Ta­manna, an Afghan jour­nal­ist work­ing as a trans­la­tor, were killed in a Tal­iban am­bush shortly af­ter join­ing Afghan troops in Hel­mand prov­ince, one of the most volatile ar­eas in the coun­try.

The NPR team, in­clud­ing Pen­tagon cor­re­spon­dent Tom Bow­man and pro­ducer Monika Evs­tatieva, had just spent sev­eral days with coali­tion troops, in­clud­ing US spe­cial forces, be­fore they went over to an Afghan unit, said Col. Michael Lawhorn, a spokesman for the NATO-led mil­i­tary coali­tion.

The team spent Sun­day morn­ing in the provin­cial cap­i­tal of Lashkar Gah in­ter­view­ing lo­cal of­fi­cials, ac­cord­ing to Shakil Ah­mad Tasal, a pub­lic af­fairs of­fi­cer for the 205th Corps who ac­com­pa­nied the NPR team dur­ing the drive.

The team car­ried a let­ter from the Afghan Min­istry of De­fense, di­rect­ing the sol­diers to es­cort them to the town of Mar­jah, roughly 30 km (18 miles) away, he said.

While Lashkar Gah has re­mained in gov­ern­ment con­trol, some sur­round­ing ar­eas of Hel­mand have been un­der se­ri­ous pres­sure from Is­lamist mil­i­tants from the Tal­iban in­sur­gency.

Ear­lier this year in Mar­jah, US forces con­ducted sev­eral air strikes to help be­lea­guered Afghan troops, and a US Spe­cial Forces sol­dier was killed and two oth­ers were wounded dur­ing a Tal­iban at­tack.

On Sun­day af­ter­noon, a con­voy of six lightly ar­mored Humvees, which also car­ried an Afghan gen­eral, was near­ing Mar­jah when Tal­iban gun­men opened fire, pelt­ing the ve­hi­cles with small arms and rocket fire.

“We were tak­ing very heavy fire,” Tasal told Reuters.

The Humvee car­ry­ing Ta­manna and Gilkey was hit by a shell and caught fire, killing the jour­nal­ists and the sol­dier driv­ing the ve­hi­cle, ac­cord­ing to wit­nesses and NPR.

A gunfight raged for at least 30 min­utes be­fore coali­tion and Afghan air­craft ar­rived over­head, ap­par­ently prompt­ing the Tal­iban to break off the at­tack, Tasal said.

The coali­tion said its air­craft pro­vided sur­veil­lance for the Afghans, while at­tack air­craft were put on standby but never launched.

The other two NPR staffers, trav­el­ing in an­other ve­hi­cle, were un­harmed.

A vet­eran pho­to­jour­nal­ist, Gilkey, 50, had re­ported from Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, and won awards for cov­er­ing vet­er­ans is­sues in the United States and the ebola break­out in Africa.

In a video posted by NPR on May 13, just prior to his de­par­ture for Afghanistan, Gilkey de­scribed a de­sire to get close to what is hap­pen­ing.

“What I al­ways try to show in my pic­tures is what it’s like for the guys on the ground that are having to op­er­ate there,” he said.

Like many Afghan jour­nal­ists who per­form the lion’s share of the work cov­er­ing their coun­try, Ta­manna had worked for a va­ri­ety of for­eign out­lets, in­clud­ing the Chi­nese news agency Xin­hua and Turkey’s Anadolu News Agency.

Qual­i­fied jour­nal­ists in their own right, Afghans like Ta­manna are of­ten con­tracted to pro­vide trans­la­tion and other help for for­eign re­porters.

“He was a very hon­est, re­spon­si­ble per­son and loved his coun­try,” Ha­roon Saba­woon, a friend and busi­ness part­ner, said of Ta­manna. “He was very po­lite, calm and had high hopes for peace and se­cu­rity.”

Ta­manna, 38, left be­hind a wife and three chil­dren.

Afghan troops re­cov­ered the bod­ies of the slain jour­nal­ists and handed them over to coali­tion forces at Camp Shorab, where the team had just pre­vi­ously been em­bed­ded with Amer­i­can troops, Lawhorn said.

“Dozens and dozens” of US troops at the base formed an honor guard, stood to at­ten­tion and saluted when the jour­nal­ists’ re­mains ar­rived, Bow­man re­ported to NPR.

Coali­tion CH-47 heli­copters then trans­ported them to the base at Kan­da­har Air Field, Lawhorn said.

(Cour­tesy NPR)


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