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Insurgents ambush Afghan highway crew

A two-hour battle leaves at least 35 dead

By Ray Rivera and Sangar Rahimi
New York Times / May 20, 2011

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Insurgents ambushed an Afghan construction crew working on a road project in southeastern Afghanistan early yesterday morning, leaving at least 35 security guards, laborers, and engineers dead.

Security guards tried to fight off the attackers in a gunfight that lasted two hours in a remote part of Paktia Province, local officials said. Of the 80 workers and guards at the construction camp, only eight are known to have escaped unharmed. Twenty were wounded, and 17 are missing, the officials said.

The attack began around 2 a.m., about 30 miles east of the provincial capital, Gardez, in an area under the sway of the Haqqani network, an offshoot of the Taliban.

The group, based across the border in Pakistan’s tribal areas, has been responsible for attacks throughout eastern Afghanistan. In an e-mail to reporters, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack without mentioning the Haqqani network.

Local officials said they did not begin learning the full scope of the carnage until late morning, when villagers sent to investigate discovered the bodies.

An Afghan construction company, Glassco Sky, had the contract for the 27-mile project, which had been underway for about a year and a half, said Ruhullah Samon, a spokesman for the Paktia governor’s office. It was not known how many insurgents carried out the attack, but eight were killed as guards tried to fend them off, Samon said.

“It was a tragic incident,’’ he said. “It was really an unprecedented attack on road construction crew members.’’

Zamari Zadran, subgovernor of the Wazie Zadran district, where the attack occurred, said members of the construction crew never called for help. One reason may be that the Taliban, either through threats or violence, often force cellphone companies to cut off service at night in many volatile areas to make it easier to move without local residents informing the authorities.

“They did not contact us, so neither we nor the coalition forces could come here to help, because we did not know what was happening with them,’’ Zadran said.

Road crews largely financed with US and international aid have long been targets for insurgents hoping to disrupt the projects, which are signs of government progress in the country. In March suicide bombers attacked a road construction camp in Paktia Province, killing 24 people and wounding 50.

The crew attacked yesterday was working on a road not far from the Gardez-Khost Highway, a 64-mile project that has been one of the most troubled and costly transportation projects in Afghanistan.

Since work on the highway began in 2007, there have been at least 364 attacks on crews, resulting in the deaths of 19 people. The project, financed by USAID, has come to symbolize the pitfalls of corruption and the danger of trying to carry out development projects in areas strongly lacking in security. It has cost about $121 million so far, with the final price tag expected to reach $176 million, or about $2.8 million per mile.

Construction contractors trying to build in many of these volatile areas have been accused of paying off local insurgent groups, including the Haqqani network, to allow work to continue, which in turn helps to finance the insurgency. Some security outfits have also been accused of facilitating attacks in order to extort more money for security.

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