Two German journalists who had pitched a tent on the side of a road outside a northern Afghan village were killed by gunmen early Saturday, the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.

The two freelance journalists working for Germany's national broadcast outlet were the first foreign reporters killed in Afghanistan since late 2001, when eight journalists died.

A NATO soldier, meanwhile, was killed by militants who exploded a roadside bomb and fired on a military patrol in southern Afghanistan. A suicide car bomber targeted a U.S. patrol in eastern Afghanistan but caused no casualties.

The killings came on the fifth anniversary of the Oct. 7, 2001, invasion by U.S.-led troops to oust the Taliban for hosting Usama bin Laden. Western forces and Afghanistan's Northern Alliance quickly routed the Islamic regime.

CountryWatch: Afghanistan

But the militant fighters who once appeared soundly defeated have returned with a vengeance, taking control of large swaths of countryside in the last year. Taliban fighters have stepped up the use of roadside and suicide bombs, and more than 3,000 people have been killed this year, mostly militants battling Western forces and their superior firepower.

Some 40,000 U.S. and NATO troops are now in Afghanistan, 2.5 times the number three years ago.

The slain journalists worked for Deutsche Welle, Germany's state-owned broadcast outlet, which produces news for radio, television and the Internet. The freelancers were not based in Afghanistan.

The Germans — a man and a woman whose identities were not released — were traveling in a Toyota four-wheel drive vehicle through the northern province of Baghlan, about 100 miles northwest of Kabul, and had stopped outside a small village, where they set up a tent to spend the night, said Mohammad Azim Hashami, the provincial police chief.

They were killed by AK-47 gunfire at around 1:30 a.m., he said.

"The sound of the shooting was heard by some of the villagers, who ran toward that area," said Hashami. "They found a tent and they found the two journalists dead."

Hashami said nothing was stolen from the journalists, including their vehicle. Police had no suspects.

Deutsche Welle said the two were conducting research for a documentary. They had been en route to the province of Bamiyan, the site of two large Buddha statues that were destroyed by the Taliban in early 2001.

The German government sharply condemned the "atrocious and senseless" murders.

"This heinous crime must be solved and the perpetrators brought before justice," Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a statement. "The atrocious and senseless death of our citizens strengthens all the more our responsibility to support the Afghan government in its commitment to security and a rule of law."

Some 2,700 German soldiers are serving in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in the north of the country.

There is little daily violence in the northern province of Baghlan, compared with Afghanistan's volatile south, but militant fighters allied with renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar roam the area. A Canadian aid worker helping to build a school was killed in the province in July.

An Afghan journalist who arrived at the scene of a suicide bombing in July in the southern city of Kandahar was killed by a second suicide bombing at the same spot.

The attack on the NATO troops, meanwhile, occurred in the volatile Panjwayi district of Kandahar province near a NATO base, the alliance said. NATO did not release the nationality of the dead soldier.

NATO troops engaged in heavy clashes with militants in Panjwayi district last month, and NATO said more than 300 fighters were killed.

In the eastern province of Khost, a suicide car bomber targeted a U.S. patrol near the border with Pakistan, said provincial police chief Mohammed Ayub. He said there were no casualties but one vehicle was damaged. Maj. Luke Knittig, a NATO spokesman, confirmed that there were no military casualties.

In Ghazni province, police said a regional Taliban commander — Mullah Abdul Rahim Sabauun — was killed by police on Thursday. Sabauun was reportedly a high-ranking politician during the Taliban's rule.

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