LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - The NPR photojournalist and his Afghan colleague killed in Afghanistan on Sunday died on the first day of an embed with local troops, highlighting the risks for reporters in a country where increasing amounts of territory are off-limits.
Photographer David Gilkey and Zabihullah Tamanna, an Afghan journalist working as a translator, were killed in a Taliban ambush shortly after joining Afghan troops in Helmand province, one of the most volatile areas in the country.
The NPR team, including Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and producer Monika Evstatieva, had just spent several days with coalition troops, including U.S. special forces, before they went over to an Afghan unit, said Colonel Michael Lawhorn, a spokesman for the NATO-led military coalition.
The team spent Sunday morning in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah interviewing local officials, according to Shakil Ahmad Tasal, a public affairs officer for the 205th Corps who accompanied the NPR team during the drive.
The team carried a letter from the Afghan Ministry of Defence, directing the soldiers to escort them to the town of Marjah, roughly 30 km (18 miles) away, he said.
While Lashkar Gah has remained in government control, some surrounding areas of Helmand have been under serious pressure from Islamist militants from the Taliban insurgency.
Earlier this year in Marjah, U.S. forces conducted several air strikes to help beleaguered Afghan troops, and a U.S. Special Forces soldier was killed and two others were wounded during a Taliban attack.
On Sunday afternoon, a convoy of six lightly armoured Humvees, which also carried an Afghan general, was nearing Marjah when Taliban gunmen opened fire, pelting the vehicles with small arms and rocket fire.
"We were taking very heavy fire," Tasal told Reuters.
The Humvee carrying Tamanna and Gilkey was hit by a shell and caught fire, killing the journalists and the soldier driving the vehicle, according to witnesses and NPR.
A gunfight raged for at least 30 minutes before coalition and Afghan aircraft arrived overhead, apparently prompting the Taliban to break off the attack, Tasal said.
The coalition said its aircraft provided surveillance for the Afghans, while attack aircraft were put on standby but never launched.
The other two NPR staffers, traveling in another vehicle, were unharmed.
A veteran photojournalist, Gilkey, 50, had reported from Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, and won awards for covering veterans issues in the United States and the ebola breakout in Africa.
In a video posted by NPR on May 13, just prior to his departure for Afghanistan, Gilkey described a desire to get close to what is happening.
"What I always try to show in my pictures is what it's like for the guys on the ground that are having to operate there," he said.
Like many Afghan journalists who perform the lion's share of the work covering their country, Tamanna had worked for a variety of foreign outlets, including the Chinese news agency Xinhua and Turkey's Anadolu News Agency.
Qualified journalists in their own right, Afghans like Tamanna are often contracted to provide translation and other help for foreign reporters.
"He was a very honest, responsible person and loved his country," Haroon Sabawoon, a friend and business partner, said of Tamanna. "He was very polite, calm and had high hopes for peace and security."
Tamanna, 38, left behind a wife and three children.
Afghan troops recovered the bodies of the slain journalists and handed them over to coalition forces at Camp Shorab, where the team had just previously been embedded with American troops, Lawhorn said.
"Dozens and dozens" of U.S. troops at the base formed an honor guard, stood to attention and saluted when the journalists' remains arrived, Bowman reported to NPR.
Coalition CH-47 helicopters then transported them to the base at Kandahar Air Field, Lawhorn said.
Additional reporting by Josh Smith and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Editing by Mike Collett-White