KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Insurgents ambushed an Afghan government peace negotiator on Wednesday, killing him and two bodyguards as they headed to a meeting in the south to discuss plans for local troops to take over responsibility from the U.S-led coalition, Afghan officials said.
Malim Shah Wali Khan, 53, who sat on a council tasked with starting talks with the Taliban in hopes of ending the nearly 12-year-old war, was killed when attackers hit his convoy with a bomb and automatic rifle fire, Helmand provincial spokesman Omer Zawak said.
The province's deputy governor, Masoud Bakhtawer, was also wounded in the attack, which took place in the same district where Afghan forces will shortly be in control. Helmand has been one the war's bloodiest battlefields and a traditional Taliban stronghold.
Khan was the provincial director of the High Peace Council, a group formed by President Hamid Karzai to try and find ways to initiate peace talks with the insurgents. The council has so far failed to start any form of negotiations with the Taliban since U.S.-initiated peace talks collapsed last year.
In a statement, Karzai "strongly condemned" the attack that killed Khan and said that "the enemies of Afghanistan are trying to attack and martyr those individuals who are doing their best to bring peace and stability to the country."
The U.S.-led coalition has been handing over responsibility for security in the province, and around the country, to Afghan forces as foreign combat troops prepare to withdraw by end-2014. So far, the Afghan government is in charge of areas representing 80 percent of the country's population. It hopes to assume full control by the early summer.
The British Ministry of Defense on Wednesday also said three of its soldiers were killed in Helmand by a roadside bomb. NATO had announced the deaths on Tuesday but had not identified the nationalities of the soldiers.
The soldiers were on patrol when their armored vehicle struck the bomb. Insurgents have increased their attacks in recent weeks and since they announced the start of their spring offensive on April 27.
In other developments, health officials were investigating why nearly 70 students at a high school near the capital became ill on Wednesday.
Amanullah Eman, a spokesman for the Education Ministry, said some students were briefly hospitalized but all were doing well. He said a number of factors were being investigated, including the use of fertilizers in nearby farm land.
There have been numerous cases of dozens of school children falling ill during the spring, when Afghan students return to school. Although some officials in the past have blamed the Taliban for attempting to poison students, the insurgents have repeatedly denied any involvement and no proof has ever been found of deliberate poisoning. Experts have instead blamed mass hysteria for many of the cases.
Mirwais Khan contributed from Kandahar and Patrick Quinn from Kabul.