JALALABAD, Afghanistan – Six gunmen ambushed a convoy of journalists passing Monday through a narrow mountain pass on the way to Kabul, and four international journalists were missing and feared dead.
The gunmen stopped the cars and led the journalists away, then opened fire, witnesses said.
Those missing included a television cameraman and a photographer working for the Reuters news agency; a journalist with the Spanish daily El Mundo; and a journalist with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.
An Afghan translator working with the journalists also was missing, and his fate was unknown.
Italian Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero said in Brussels, Belgium, that based on reports from the scene it appeared the four journalists were killed. Four bodies near the road were believed to be the journalists, he said.
Corriere della Sera's top editor, Ferruccio De Bortoli, said "we're still hanging onto the last hope, even though with the passing of the hours, it becomes ever more feeble." A Reuters spokesman said the journalists were "missing and feared dead."
According to their employers, the missing journalists were: Australian television cameraman Harry Burton and Azizullah Haidari, an Afghan photographer, both of Reuters; Maria Grazia Cutuli of Corriere della Sera; and Julio Fuentes of El Mundo.
The four were among more than a dozen international journalists traveling in a convoy of around eight cars from the eastern city of Jalalabad to the capital, Kabul. Because the road was very dusty, the cars spread out and often lost sight of each other.
The province recently came under the control of anti-Taliban forces. However, some Taliban stragglers and Arab fighters loyal to terror suspect Osama bin Laden are still believed to be in the area, and there had been earlier reports of armed robberies on the road.
Near the town of Serobi, 35 miles east of Kabul, six gunmen on the roadside waved the first three cars in the convoy to stop. One car sped ahead, while two stopped, said Ashiquallah, the driver of the car carrying the Reuters reporters. He uses only one name.
He said the gunmen, wearing long robes, beards and turbans, warned them not to go any farther because there was fighting ahead with the Taliban. At that moment, a bus from Kabul came by and said the road was safe. The cars' drivers thought the gunmen were thieves and tried to speed away, but the gunmen stopped them.
The gunmen then ordered all the journalists out of the cars and tried to force them to climb the mountain. When they refused, the gunmen beat them and threw stones at them, said Ashiquallah.
"They said, 'What, you think the Taliban are finished? We are still in power and we will have our revenge,"' Ashiquallah said.
The gunmen then shot the Italian woman and one of the men, prompting the drivers to flee, he said. The Afghan translator, a man named Homuin, was left behind with the journalists.
The cars sped back toward Jalalabad and to warn the rest of the convoy. Other journalists saw the cars turn, and decided to turn around also. Ashiquallah's account was corroborated by another translator and driver who escaped in the other car.
Haji Sher Shah, an anti-Taliban commander in Jalalabad, said he spoke to residents and travelers on the road who reported seeing four bodies at the location of the attack.
"They were on the road, one woman and three men," Shah said, quoting witnesses. He said villagers reported numerous other attacks involving gunfire on vehicles on the same road during the day.
Shershah took his men to within 10 miles of the ambush site. He decided against trying to go farther because night had fallen, the attack took place outside his district, and he feared an ambush on the narrow road, which has a river to the north and a steep mountain to the south.
The Afghans who took control of Jalalabad after the Taliban fled have a tenuous relationship with the northern alliance in Kabul, and the attack occurred along the boundary between the two groups.
Shah said the attackers were bandits, not Taliban or his own fighters. A French journalist was robbed in the area the day before, and hours after Monday's assault on the journalists, an Afghan car arrived in Jalalabad with two bullet holes after being attacked.
"They're not Taliban, they are thieves," Shah said. "They just want to put the blame on the Taliban ... They were robbing lots of people."
Just moments before the attack, an Associated Press correspondent coming from Kabul passed the spot and saw six gunmen in dark robes and turbans leaning against a destroyed house with assault rifles. One of the men shouted at the Afghan driver, "Why did you shave your beard? Stop, come here!"
But the driver did not stop and the men did not threaten the correspondent. Minutes later the car carrying the missing journalists passed the AP car, heading in the opposite direction.