Three foreign female aid workers killed in Afghanistan

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Suspected Taliban insurgents killed three female aid workers and their Afghan driver in an ambush today, officials said, the bloodiest single attack on foreign humanitarian workers in Afghanistan in recent years.

Rising violence has already forced aid agencies to restrict humanitarian work at a time when drought and high prices are putting more people under pressure.

Abdullah Wardak, the governor of Logar province south of Kabul where the incident took place, said the women and their driver were travelling towards Kabul when they were attacked with small-arms fire from another car.

"Three foreign women employees of IRC (International Rescue Committee) and their local driver were killed in this ambush by the opposition forces," he said.

Security forces have recovered the bodies of the victims, Wardak said.

The US-based IRC's work in Afghanistan focuses on providing returning refugees with shelter, water and sanitation, and developing the health care system.

A spokesman for the IRC in London said she could not confirm the nationalities of the dead women.

"We are still contacting the next of kin. We hope to have a statement in the next couple of hours," Lydia Gomersall said. "It's a dreadful shock, it really is very, very sad news."

Aid agencies this month complained that rising violence was hampering their work and said 19 Afghan NGO staff had been killed this year.

Three district IRC offices have been attacked and destroyed since March, the IRC Web site said. Two Afghans working for IRC were killed in an ambush, also in Logar province, in July 2007.

The United Nations said all sides in the conflict must recognise the neutrality of humanitarian workers.

"I condemn this cowardly attack in the strongest possible terms and urge the authorities to leave no stone unturned in the search for the perpetrators," said Aleem Siddique, the UN spokesman in Afghanistan.

Violence has surged in Afghanistan this year with more clashes in each of the past three months than in any month since U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in 2001.