Foreign tourists attacked in western Afghanistan

A group of western tourists on a sight-seeing adventure tour of Afghanistan have been ambushed by Taliban gunmen, Afghan officials said on Thursday, with at least six people wounded.

Militants opened fire on the foreigners in the western province of Herat, as they were travelling with an Afghan army escort. The group were heading for Herat, the country’s ancient cultural centre, close to the Iranian border.

Jaliani Farhard, a spokesman for Herat’s governor, said the tourists included eight Britons, three US citizens and one German. Two of the British citizens were believed to be from Scotland.

“The convoy was ambushed by the Taliban in Chesht-e-Sharif district. The tourists were on their way to Herat from Bamiyan and Ghor provinces,” Farhard said.

A military spokesman said the attack left at least five foreign tourists and their Afghan driver wounded, adding that they were now being taken to Herat city.

It was unclear what the tourists were doing in Afghanistan. But there was speculation that the party had gone there with Hinterland Travel, a small British tour operator based in Brighouse, West Yorkshire, and run by veteran tour guide Geoff Hann.

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The company specialises in adventure tours to war-torn countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. It has defended travelling to Afghanistan despite foreign office advice to avoid it. Promotional material describes Afghanistan as at the “cutting edge of adventure tourism, which in itself can offer benefits and progress”.

The firm’s latest 21-day tour, advertised on its website, began on 26 July. It says tourists arrive in the capital Kabul and then travel by road to the Bamiyan valley, home of giant Buddha statues blown up by the Taliban in 2001.

From Bamiyan, the route continues through the centre of the country and its scenic lakes to Herat, with the journey described as “tough but beautiful”.

The website says: “The country is desperately poor. Frankly it needs any help that we or anyone can provide … The main roads had become diabolical but are now being totally reconstructed. The Afghan people are friendly and cheerfully welcoming, although wary until we can prove that we are travellers and not something else. Ancient and recent history are scattered everywhere, from Buddhist remains to burnt out tanks.”

No-one from the firm was available for comment. A UK foreign office spokeswoman said: “We are urgently seeking information about an incident in western Afghanistan and are in close contact with the local authorities.”

The Taliban have not officially claimed responsibility for the attack on Thursday. It comes as militants intensify their annual summer offensive after a brief lull during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, which ended in early July.

A handful of tourists found their way back into Taliban-run Afghanistan in the years leading up to the 2001 US-led invasion. They were the first visitors to do so after two decades of war and Soviet occupation. Hinterland Travel has said that it checked out possible routes in 2002, and has been running tours successfully ever since.

Understandably, given continuing violence, there has been no revival of the 1970s hippy trail, which saw thousands of students and Peace Corps volunteers descend on Kabul’s Chicken Street en route to India. Moderate Taliban figures suggested bringing back the trail in 2000. A year later hardline elements destroyed the fourth-century Buddhas, the country’s most celebrated attraction.

Highways in Afghanistan passing through insurgency-prone areas have become exceedingly dangerous, with the Taliban and other armed groups frequently kidnapping or killing travellers.