DARUNTA, Afghanistan Several gunmen, saying the Taliban “will come back and do their job,” pulled four journalists from their cars on a remote road near here and shot them to death on the roadside yesterday morning, witnesses said.
The incident was a chilling reminder of the lawlessness that prevailed in Afghanistan before the Taliban imposed its harsh rule and posed a challenge to the local tribal chiefs who established their own administration in the region last week.
The reporters three men and a woman from Spain, Australia, Afghanistan and Italy respectively were traveling in the first two of six cars heading west from the recently liberated city of Jalalabad to the capital, Kabul.
Their bodies still lay by the side of the road in the Tangi Gorge last night, said the drivers of vehicles coming from the other direction. Gunmen were reported to have continued firing on passing cars through the day from cliffs overlooking the road.
Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of reporters have made the trip since Pakistan opened its border crossing at Torquam on the road from Islamabad last week.
A Washington Times reporter and photographer were traveling along the same road about 30 minutes behind the reporters who were killed.
Gunmen halted the two cars at about 11 a.m. and warned the passengers not to go any farther, said Humayon, an Afghan interpreter who had been riding with Maria Grazia of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera and Julio Fuentes of the Spanish daily El Mundo.
“They made them get out of the car, they led them away out of sight. I heard shooting. They didn’t want any money. They didn’t say what they wanted. I think they were just killers,” said Humayon, who like some Afghans uses only one name.
Ashiquallah, the driver of the second car, which carried Reuters TV cameraman Harry Barton of Australia and Afghan photographer Azizullah Haidari, said the gunmen wore long robes, beards and turbans in the style of the Taliban fighters who last week retreated into the surrounding mountains.
“They told me that, ‘People say in Afghanistan that the Taliban are banished. They are still in Afghanistan and they will come to do their job,’” the driver quoted the men as saying. He said the gunmen beat and stoned the reporters before shooting them.
The two drivers turned around and drove back toward Jalalabad, warning other drivers on the road to turn back. One of two translators who had been with the reporters still was missing last night, the Associated Press reported.
Two reporters tried to return with an ambulance from Jalalabad, accompanied by several militiamen, but as dark fell the security escort refused to enter a narrow pass where the shootings had occurred, saying gunmen had been shooting at passing cars from the cliffs above.
Travelers reaching Jalalabad from Kabul later in the day variously reported having seen between two and four bodies on the roadside, one of them a woman.
In Kabul, two Greek journalists from Antennae Television who had left Jalalabad ahead of the reporters who were killed said they had been stopped by three gunmen who attempted to rob them not far from the same spot.
Despite the gunmen’s appearance and remarks, anti-Taliban commander Haji Sher Shah maintained in Jalalabad that the men were simply common thieves.
“They just want to put the blame on the Taliban. They were robbing lots of people,” he told the AP.
The attack came as a challenge to the authority of a new provincial government established over the weekend by a council of tribal elders in Jalalabad.
But Abdul Qadeer, who was chosen as governor of the province on Saturday, insisted the incident occurred outside his jurisdiction in a no-man’s land between Jalalabad and Kabul.
The governor “was quite casual. He didn’t take the matter seriously,” said Ashfaq Yusufzai, an interpreter.
Despite the evidence of the reporters’ deaths, Mr. Qadeer maintained he was “quite sure, 70 percent sure,” that they were still alive and said he planned to begin an armed offensive to rescue them this morning.
“We pray to God, and we will do our best,” he said.
Julian West in Kabul contributed to this article.