KABUL, Afghanistan - An Afghan police commander opened fire Friday on two Associated Press journalists, killing Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Anja Niedringhaus and wounding veteran correspondent Kathy Gannon - the first known case of a security insider attacking journalists in Afghanistan.
The shooting was part of a surge in violence targeting foreigners in advance of today's presidential election, a pivotal moment in Afghanistan's troubled recent history that promises to be the nation's first democratic transfer of power.
Niedringhaus, 48, who had covered conflict zones from the Balkans in the 1990s to Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, died instantly of her wounds.
Gannon, 60, who for many years was the news organization's Afghanistan bureau chief and currently is a special correspondent for the region, was shot three times in the wrists and shoulder. After surgery, she was in stable condition and spoke to medical personnel before being flown to Kabul, the capital.
Niedringhaus and Gannon had worked together repeatedly in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, covering the conflict from some of the most dangerous hotspots of the Taliban insurgency. They often focused on the war's impact on Afghan civilians, and they embedded several times with the Afghan police and military, reporting on the Afghan government's determination to build up its often ill-equipped forces to face the fight against militants.
Gannon, who had sources inside the Taliban leadership, was one of the few Western reporters allowed into Afghanistan during the militant group's rule in the 1990s.
The two journalists were traveling in a convoy of election workers delivering ballots in the eastern city of Khost, under the protection of Afghan security forces. They were in their own car with a translator and an AP Television News freelancer waiting for the convoy to move after arriving at the heavily guarded security forces base in eastern Afghanistan.
A unit commander identified by authorities as Naqibullah walked up to the car, yelled "Allahu Akbar" - God is Great - and fired on them in the back seat with his AK-47, said the freelance videographer, who witnessed the attack. The officer then surrendered to the other police and was arrested.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied responsibility for Friday's attack. Khost provincial police Chief Faizullah Ghyrat said the 25-year-old attacker confessed to the shooting and told authorities he was from Parwan province, northwest of Kabul, and was acting to avenge the deaths of family members in a NATO bombing there. The claim could not be corroborated.
The shooting came on the eve of Afghanistan's elections for a new president and provincial councils. With international combat forces preparing to withdraw by the end of this year, the country is so unstable that the very fact the vote is being held has been touted as one of the few successes in outgoing President Hamid Karzai's tenure.
Nearly 200,000 Afghan security forces planned to fan out today to protect polling stations and voters.
Three men are considered top contenders in the race - a major shift from past elections dominated by Karzai, who has ruled the country since the Taliban were ousted in 2001. That has presented Afghans with their first presidential vote in which the outcome is uncertain.
There do not appear to be major policy differences toward the West between the front-runners - Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's top rival in the last election; Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, an academic and former World Bank official; and Zalmai Rassoul, a former foreign minister. All have promised to sign a security agreement with the United States that will allow thousands of foreign troops to remain in the country after 2014 - which Karzai has refused to do. The candidates differ on some issues such as the country's border dispute with Pakistan. But all preach against fraud and corruption and vow to improve security.
None is expected to get a majority needed to secure a win outright, so a runoff between the top two vote-getters is widely expected.
The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the vote and have stepped up violence in recent weeks, including increased attacks on civilian targets in Kabul and the killings of a Swedish journalist and an Afghan journalist for the French news agency Agence France-Presse.
"What the world knows about Iraq, they largely know because of her pictures and the pictures by the photographers she raised and beat into shape," AP photographer David Guttenfelder said of Niedringhaus. "I know they always ask themselves, 'What would Anja do?' when they go out with their cameras. I think we all do."
At an exhibit of her work in Berlin in 2011, Niedringhaus said: "Sometimes I feel bad because I can always leave the conflict, go back home to my family where there's no war."
About the journalists
Anja Niedringhaus: joined the AP in 2002, and while based in Geneva worked throughout the Middle East as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2005, she was part of the AP team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for coverage of Iraq, and was awarded the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation, among many journalistic honors. In 2006-07, she studied at Harvard University under a Nieman Fellowship.
Kathy Gannon: a Canadian journalist based in Islamabad, has covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for the AP since the mid-1980s. A former Edward R. Murrow fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, she is the author of a book on the country, I Is for Infidel: From Holy War to Holy Terror: 18 Years Inside Afghanistan. She also was awarded the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation, in 2002.