MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan, Feb 8 (Reuters) - The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) suspended operations in Afghanistan on Wednesday after gunmen killed six employees helping deliver emergency relief to a remote northern region hit by heavy snow storms.
The governor of Jowzjan province said the aid convoy was attacked by suspected Islamic State gunmen. The head of the ICRC called the incident the "worst attack against us" in 20 years, but the charity said it did not know who was responsible.
A search operation was underway to find two charity workers who were still missing late on Wednesday night.
"As we speak our operations are on hold indeed, because we need to understand what exactly happened before we can hopefully resume our operations," ICRC director of operations Dominik Stillhart told Reuters in Geneva.
The past 16 years at war in Afghanistan
The past 16 years at war in Afghanistan
The United States and Britain on October 7, 2001 launched a first wave of air strikes against Afghanistan and President George W. Bush said the action heralded a "sustained, comprehensive and relentless" campaign against terrorism. Eyewitnesses said they saw flashes and heard explosions over the Afghan capital of Kabul in the first phase of what the United States has said will be a protracted and wide-ranging war against terrorism and the states that support it. The attack had been prepared since the September 11 suicide attacks on the United States that killed around 5,600 people. A U.S. Air force B-52 bomber drops a load of M117 750-pound bombs over a bombing range in the United States in this undated file photo.B-52s, B-1 and B-2 stealth bombers are some of the aircraft that were reportedly used in the attacks on Afghanistan. REUTERS/USAF-Handout KM/HB
Two Northern Alliance soldiers watch as the dust and smoke rises after
explosions in Taliban positions on Kalakata hill, near the village of
Ai-Khanum in northern Afghanistan, November 1, 2001. The Pentagon said
on Wednesday B-52s dropped heavy loads of bombs, a tactic known as
carpet bombing, on Taliban troops north of Kabul as a result of
improved tergeting intelligence, partly from U.S. special forces on the
ground. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko
U.S. Marine PV2 Eileen M. Schnetzko stands on guard at Bagram airport,
March 2, 2002. U.S. troops are based at Bagram, north of Kabul. There
are some 4,000 U.S. troops based in Afghanistan as part of the
international war against terrorism. REUTERS/Mario Laporta REUTERS
A U.S. special forces soldier (L) watches while Afghan militia wait in
line to turn in their weapons at a military base in Kunduz, Afghanistan
October 22, 2003. A long-awaited U.N.-sponsored project to disarm,
demobilise and reintegrate 100,000 soldiers across Afghanistan was
under way in the north, a key step to bringing eventual peace to this
war-torn country. The "New Beginnings Programme," which lets soldiers
exchange their weapons for jobs, began in the northern province of
Kunduz this week. REUTERS/Richard Vogel/Pool
A Chinook helicopter hovers over U.S. troops in the village of Jegdelic, about 90 km (56 miles) southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, in this picture taken on December 24, 2004. A U.S. military helicopter carrying up to 20 American troops crashed during an anti-guerrilla mission in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, U.S. officials said. The fate of those on board was not immediately known. Picture taken December 24, 2004. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood Am/mk BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE
An Afghan boy looks at U.S. soldiers as they patrol a village near the town of Makkor, southwest of Kabul April 20, 2007. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic (AFGHANISTAN)
A U.S. soldier works with a shovel as a vehicle is stuck in mud, some 70km south of Ghazni, southeastern Afghanistan April 23, 2007. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic (AFGHANISTAN)
British and a U.S. soldiers control the crowd during medical assistance in Kabul February 26, 2008. U.S. and British troops provided medical assistance worth of $50,000 to the Afghan locals in Kabul on Tuesday. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood (AFGHANISTAN)
Sgt. William Olas Bee, a U.S. Marine from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, has a close call after Taliban fighters opened fire near Garmsir in Helmand Province of Afghanistan, May 18, 2008.
REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic (AFGHANISTAN)
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (L) and U.S. Army General David McKiernan, the top U.S. and NATO Commander in Afghanistan (R) listen to Afghan governors and local officials during their visit to Forward Operating Base Airborne in the mountains of Wardak Province, Afghanistan, May 8, 2009. Gates on May 11, 2009 replaced the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General David McKiernan, less than a year after he took over the war effort there. Gates said he asked for McKiernan's resignation and recommended Army Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, a former commander of special operations forces, to take over command of 45,000 U.S. troops and about 32,000 other troops from non-U.S. NATO countries. REUTERS/Jason Reed (AFGHANISTAN MILITARY POLITICS)
U.S. soldiers of the 2-12 Infantry, 4th Brigade prepare to tow a broken-down improvised explosive device (IED) detecting Huskie vehicle during a patrol in the Pesh Valley in Afghanistan's Kunar Province July 30, 2009. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne (AFGHANISTAN CONFLICT)
U.S. soldiers kneel during a memorial ceremony for Captain Daniel Whitten and Private First Class Zachary Lovejoy from Charlie Company, 4th Brigade combat team,1-508, 82nd Parachute Infantry Regiment at the Remote Sweeney FOB in Zabul province, southern Afghanistan, February 8, 2010. CPT Whitten from Grimes, Iowa, and PFC Lovejoy from Albuquerque, New Mexico, were killed by an IED on February 2. when on patrol in southern Afghanistan.
REUTERS/Baz Ratner (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT MILITARY)
Canadian soldiers play table football under flashlights at a military outpost near the village of Bazaar e Panjwaii, in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar province August 8, 2010. REUTERS/Bob Strong (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CONFLICT MILITARY)
U.S. Army medic Staff Sergeant Rahkeem Francis with Charlie Company, 6-101 Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, treats an Afghan boy with a broken leg onboard a medevac helicopter near the town of Marjah in Helmand Province, August 19, 2010. REUTERS/Bob Strong (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CONFLICT MILITARY POLITICS)
U.S. Army soldiers from the 2nd Platoon, B battery 2-8 field artillery, fire a howitzer artillery piece at Seprwan Ghar forward fire base in Panjwai district, Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, June 12, 2011. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CONFLICT MILITARY IMAGES OF THE DAY POLITICS)
An Afghan shepherd walks with a flock of sheep past a U.S. Marines armored vehicle of the Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines outside the Camp Gorgak in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan July 5, 2011. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY ANIMALS IMAGES OF THE DAY)
First Sergeant Mac Miller from Comanche Troop 3rd Squadron 4th Cavalry lift weights as he exercises in Forward Operating Base Connolly in Nangarhar province, eastern Afghanistan, March 3, 2012. Picture taken March 3, 2012. REUTERS/Erik De Castro (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: MILITARY CONFLICT)
A U.S. Army soldier and a member of the Afghan Uniform Police arm wrestle prior to a joint patrol near Command Outpost AJK (short for Azim-Jan-Kariz, a near-by village) in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, January 28, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Burton (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST MILITARY SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A U.S. service member takes a "selfie" as U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with troops after delivering remarks at Bagram Air Base in Kabul, May 25, 2014. Obama, on a visit to Afghanistan, said on Sunday his administration would likely announce soon how many troops the United States will keep in the country, as it winds down its presence after nearly 13 years of war. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY)
Afghan children gesture at U.S. soldiers from Grim Company of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment as they stand guard near an Afghan police checkpoint during a mission near Forward Operating Base Fenty in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan December 19, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS MILITARY CONFLICT)
U.S. soldiers attend to a wounded soldier at the site of a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan June 30, 2015. At least 17 people were wounded in a suicide bomb attack on NATO troops as their truck convoy passed down the main road running between Kabul's airport and the U.S. embassy, police and health ministry officials said. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A U.S. soldier keeps watch at the site of an explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan January 4, 2016. A large explosion struck close to Kabul airport on Monday, causing at least 10 casualties near to the area where a suicide bomber blew himself up earlier in the day in the latest in a series of attacks in the Afghan capital over the past week. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
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Afghanistan is the ICRC's fourth largest humanitarian program in the world, Stillhart said, and the attack follows a warning by the charity last month that mounting security issues made it perilous to deliver aid to large swathes of the country.
A massive snowstorm dumped as much as two meters (6.5 feet) of snow on areas of Afghanistan over the weekend, according to officials, killing more than 100 people.
Lotfullah Azizi, the Jowzjan provincial governor, said the aid workers were carrying livestock supplies to areas badly affected by the storm.
"Daesh is very active in that area," he said, using an alternative name for Islamic State, which has made limited inroads in Afghanistan but has carried out increasingly deadly attacks.
The ICRC team included three drivers and five field officers. Jowzjan police chief Rahmatullah Turkistani said the workers' bodies had been taken to the provincial capital.
"These staff members were simply doing their duty, selflessly trying to help and support the local community," ICRC president Peter Maurer said.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said his group was not involved in the attack and promised that Taliban members would "put all their efforts into finding the perpetrators."
Gunmen in northern Afghanistan kidnapped a Spanish ICRC employee in mid December, releasing him nearly a month later.
That staff member had been traveling with three Afghan colleagues between Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz when gunmen stopped their vehicles. The local staff were immediately released.
In a summary of its work in Afghanistan last year, the ICRC said increasing security issues hampered the provision of aid to many parts of the country.
"Despite it all, the ICRC has remained true to its commitment to the people of Afghanistan, as it has throughout the last 30 years of its continuous presence in the country," the statement said.
Besides determining the operational impact of the attack, Stillhart said ICRC would pause its programs out of respect for the slain aid workers.
"We also need and want to mark what is a horrible incident, which came as a huge shock for all our staff, first and foremost in Afghanistan but also to respect the families," he said. (Additional reporting by Marina Depetris in Geneva, and Mirwais Harooni and Josh Smith in Kabul; Editing by Richard Lough)