Kabul: Anger and condemnation deepened on Monday after eight foreign medics, including a British female doctor who was about to get married, were mown down in a forest gun attack claimed by the Taliban.
The bullet-riddled bodies of five US men and three women -- an American, a German and the Briton -- were found in the northeastern province of Badakhshan on Friday. Two Afghans were also killed and one, the group`s driver, survived.
The 10 bodies have been flown to Kabul and relatives of the two Afghans gathered at a morgue on Monday to identify them.
The volunteer medics worked for the Christian aid group International Assistance Mission (IAM) but US officials and the family of the British doctor, Karen Woo, denied Taliban claims that they were proselytisers and spies.
"The Taliban has proudly claimed responsibility for this despicable act of wanton violence," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
"We are heartbroken by the loss of these heroic, generous people," she said.
"We also condemn the Taliban`s transparent attempt to justify the unjustifiable by making false accusations about their activities in Afghanistan."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the killings were a "deplorable and cowardly act".
The Taliban and militant group Hizb-e-Islami claimed responsibility for the attack, which the Interior Ministry said was the work of "terrorists".
"We sent a team there to investigate who exactly did this," Lieutenant General Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, head of the ministry`s crime investigations department, said.
"According to the survivor, the terrorists shot them from far away before coming closer and seeing him," he said, adding that the driver had been spared apparently by reciting Koranic verses to the gunmen.
One of the murdered Americans was identified as Tom Little, an optometrist who had lived in Afghanistan since the mid-1970s and raised his family in Kabul through years of civil war and Taliban rule.
Abdullah Abdullah, a former presidential candidate who trained as an eye surgeon with Little, said the foreign medics were bringing desperately needed healthcare to war-torn and impoverished Afghanistan.
Dismissing the Taliban`s claims as "ridiculous", Abdullah told the BBC: "These were dedicated people. Tom Little used to work in Afghanistan with his heart -- he dedicated half of his life to service the people of Afghanistan.”
"To hear that he was killed... in such a brutal manner -- I couldn`t believe it," he said.
Northeast Afghanistan has been regarded as largely free of the Taliban-led insurgency blighting other parts of the country.
The United Nations condemned the "cold-blooded execution" and called on the rights of medics to be upheld.
"Health workers must have access to treat those in need and must be able to do so without fear," said UN special representative Staffan de Mistura.
ACBAR, an umbrella organisation for aid organisations in Afghanistan, also called for those fighting the nearly nine-year war to respect humanitarian workers in the field.
NATO and the United States have close to 150,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of a major build-up designed to reverse Taliban momentum and quicken an end to the militia`s insurgency.
Woo, 36, had quit a job with a private healthcare firm in London to come to Afghanistan, and on her blog had written with passion about her voluntary work and day-to-day life in the shattered country.
According to widespread media reports in Britain, she was preparing to return to London to marry a former British army officer in two weeks.
"Her motivation was purely humanitarian. She was a humanist and had no religious or political agenda," Woo`s family said in a statement.
"She wanted the world to know there was more than a war going on in Afghanistan, that people were not getting their basic needs met."