A veteran Associated Press (AP) photographer has been killed and an AP reporter wounded when an Afghan policeman opened fire while they were sitting in their car in eastern Afghanistan.
Anja Niedringhaus, 48, an internationally acclaimed German photographer, was killed instantly, according to an AP Television News freelancer who witnessed the shooting.
Kathy Gannon, an AP correspondent who for many years was the news organisation’s Afghanistan bureau chief and currently is a special correspondent for the region, was shot twice and later underwent surgery. She was described as being in stable condition and talking to medical personnel.
AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll, speaking in New York, said: “Anja and Kathy together have spent years in Afghanistan covering the conflict and the people there. Anja was a vibrant, dynamic journalist well-loved for her insightful photographs, her warm heart and joy for life. We are heartbroken at her loss.”
The attack came on the eve of nationwide elections in Afghanistan. The Taliban have vowed to disrupt tomorrow’s vote for a new president and provincial councils.
The two were travelling in a convoy of election workers delivering ballots from the centre of Khost city to the outskirts, in Tani district. The convoy was protected by Afghan security forces. They were in their own car with a translator and the AP freelancer.
According to the freelancer, they had arrived in the heavily guarded district compound shortly before the incident.
As they were sitting in the car waiting for the convoy to move, a unit commander named Naqibullah walked up to the car, yelled “Allahu Akbar” – “God is Great” – and opened fire on them in the back seat with his AK-47, the freelancer said. He then surrendered to the other police and was arrested.
Medical officials in Khost confirmed that Ms Niedringhaus died.
In a memo to AP staff, AP president Gary Pruitt remembered Ms Niedringhaus as “spirited, intrepid and fearless, with a raucous laugh that we will always remember”.
“Anja is the 32nd AP staffer to give their life in pursuit of the news since AP was founded in 1846,” he wrote. “This is a profession of the brave and the passionate, those committed to the mission of bringing to the world information that is fair, accurate and important. Anja Niedringhaus met that definition in every way.”
Afghan president Hamid Karzai expressed his deep sadness over Ms Niedringhaus’ death and the wounding of Ms Gannon.
“These two AP journalists had gone to Khost province to prepare reports about the presidential and provincial council elections,” a statement from Mr Karzai’s office quoted him as saying. It added that Mr Karzai instructed the interior minister and the Khost governor to assist AP in every way possible.
Ms Niedringhaus covered conflict zones including Kuwait, Iraq, Libya, Gaza and the West Bank during a 20-year stretch, beginning with the Balkans in the 1990s. She had travelled to Afghanistan numerous times since the 2001 US-led invasion.
Ms Niedringhaus, who also covered sports events around the globe, received numerous awards for her works.
She was part of an AP team that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in breaking news photography for coverage of the war in Iraq, and was awarded the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation.
She joined the AP in 2002 and had since been based in Geneva, Switzerland. From 2006 to 2007, she was awarded a Nieman Fellowship in journalism at Harvard University.
Ms Niedringhaus started her career as a freelance photographer for a local newspaper in her hometown in Hoexter, Germany at the age of 16. She worked for the European Press Photo Agency before joining the AP in 2002, based in Geneva. She had published two books.
Ms Gannon, 60, is a Canadian journalist based in Islamabad who has covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for the AP since mid-1980s. One of her predecessor’s as Islamabad chief of bureau, Sharon Herbaugh, died in a 1993 helicopter crash in the central mountains of Afghanistan. The 39-year-old Herbaugh was the first AP newswoman and bureau chief to die on assignment.
Ms Gannon is a former Edward R. Murrow Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and the author of a book on the country, I Is for Infidel: From Holy War to Holy Terror: 18 Years Inside Afghanistan.
After the attack, Ms Gannon underwent surgery in Khost. The operation was described as successful and her condition was said to be stable.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said the loss of Ms Niedringhaus and the wounding of Ms Gannon “reflect the heightened dangers of reporting from Afghanistan”.
Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia programme co-ordinator, said: “Both women, widely experienced in conflict zones, are recognized for their decades of fearless reporting.
“As pre-election violence mounts, Afghanistan has become a dangerous assignment on par with the height of the Iraq war or the current situation in Syria.”
In the run-up to the vote, Afghan security and electoral officials have vowed not to let the Taliban and other militant derail the elections while conceding it is impossible to prevent the Islamic militants from waging acts of violence.
The militants have also increasingly been targeting westerners. In recent weeks, the Taliban also have claimed responsibility for attacks in the capital, Kabul, against a luxury hotel, a foreign guest house, a Swedish journalist and a Lebanese restaurant popular with foreigners.
The 51-year old Swedish reporter, Nils Horner, had worked for Swedish Radio since 2001 as a foreign correspondent. He was killed by a shot in the head as he was reporting on Afghanistan’s election on a street in Kabul in early March. It was a rare assassination of a foreigner in the capital. An extremist Taliban splinter group later claimed responsibility for his death.
And on March 21, four gunmen walked into the Serena Hotel in Kabul, proceeded to the hotel restaurant, pulled out pistols hidden in their shoes and killed nine people.
Among the dead was Sardar Ahmad, a widely respected 40-year-old Afghan journalist with the French news agency Agence France-Presse. His wife and two of their children also were killed, while their one-year-old son was badly wounded.