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Afghan probe begins in attack on AP journalists

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Roses lay in front of a picture of the Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus, 48, who was killed April 4, 2014 in Afghanistan, in Paris, Saturday, April 5, 2014. Support group of the four French journalists taken hostages in Syria, Edouard Elias, Pierre Torres, Nicolas Henin and Didier Francois organized a commemoration for the late Anja Niedringhaus and AP correspondent Kathy Gannon, who were wounded in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Roses lay in front of a picture of the Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus, 48, who was killed April 4, 2014 in Afghanistan, in Paris, Saturday, April 5, 2014. Support group of the four French journalists taken hostages in Syria, Edouard Elias, Pierre Torres, Nicolas Henin and Didier Francois organized a commemoration for the late Anja Niedringhaus and AP correspondent Kathy Gannon, who were wounded in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

FILE – In this Aug. 27, 2013 file photo Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus, right, and AP journalist Kathy Gannon, are pictured during a visit to the photo agency Keystone in Zurich, Switzerland . Niedringhaus, 48, was killed and Kathy Gannon was wounded Friday, April 4, 2014 when an Afghan policeman opened fire while they were sitting in their car in eastern Afghanistan. Niedringhaus, an internationally acclaimed German photographer, was killed instantly, according to an AP freelancer who witnessed the shooting. Gannon, the reporter, was wounded twice and is receiving medical attention. (AP Photo/Keystone, Walter Bieri, File)

Bullet holes are seen in the car in which Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus and AP reporter Kathy Gannon were traveling when they were shot by an Afghan policeman, Friday, April 4, 2014 in Khost, Afghanistan. Niedringhaus, 48, an internationally acclaimed German photographer, was killed instantly, according to an AP Television News freelancer who witnessed the shooting. Gannon was wounded twice and is receiving medical attention. (AP Photo)

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan central government authorities on Wednesday began questioning the police commander who killed an Associated Press photographer and wounded an AP reporter, a day after he was transferred by helicopter to the capital — a rare case in which an Afghan officer or soldier who shot a foreigner was captured alive.

Local security officials who spoke with the suspect after he was first detained said he seemed a calm, pious man who may have come under the influence of Islamic extremists calling for vengeance against foreigners over drone strikes. Witness and official accounts so far have suggested the shooting was not planned.

But the Afghan Interior Ministry, which is overseeing the investigation, told the AP it won’t speculate about a motive so early in its probe into the attack, which killed AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus and seriously wounded senior correspondent Kathy Gannon.

The suspect, identified as a unit commander named Naqibullah, surrendered immediately after the attack Friday in front of dozens of security forces and election workers on a heavily guarded government compound in eastern Afghanistan. The shooting was the first known case of a security insider attacking journalists in Afghanistan, part of a surge in violence targeting foreigners.

Niedringhaus and Gannon were traveling in their own car with an AP freelancer and a translator in a convoy of workers transporting election materials from Khost, the capital of the province of the same name on the border with Pakistan, to the outlying district of Tani.

The convoy went first to the district government’s headquarters. The two foreign correspondents spoke to and photographed Afghan policemen and soldiers in the area, witnesses said, but it started to rain and they were worried about their equipment so they got back into the backseat of their car to wait for the convoy to move to deliver ballots to a nearby village.

The shooter, who was wearing his police uniform, approached the car and stuck the barrel of the AK-47 in the backseat window, shouted “God is great!” and started firing, according to the witnesses and officials.

“The good thing is that he is alive in this case because usually in these kinds of incidents the shooter either is killed or he escapes from the scene,” Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Seddiqi said Wednesday in an interview, referring to attacks by Afghan police or soldiers on foreigners. “But this time our police acted professionally and he was immediately arrested.”

Gul Zahir, the Tani district police chief, said he was one of the first people to see Naqibullah, who was tackled by security forces after the shooting.

“I took custody of him. I asked him, ‘Why did you do this thing?’” he said in a telephone interview with AP. “Naqibullah said, ‘I don’t know.’”

However, the suspect gave different explanations to provincial officials who questioned him in the days he was in custody in Khost.

Gul Mohammad, the counterterrorism director in Khost who participated in the initial questioning, said Naqibullah at first claimed the attack was in revenge for a Jan. 15 airstrike in the Ghorband district of Parwan province, a bombing which prompted a wave of anger against foreigners.

The Afghans claimed 12 civilians and four Taliban fighters were killed in the airstrike. The U.S.-led coalition said the Afghan government had requested the operation ahead of the country’s April 5 presidential elections because the area had fallen under Taliban control.

But the Interior Ministry said Naqibullah was from an area in Parwan that was not connected in any way with the airstrike.

“There was no record of any drone strike in the whole area where he lived, where his family is living,” Seddiqi said. “The initial statement does not really indicate anything so far. We do not have still any clarity on the motives.”

The Khost counterterrorism director said Naqibullah also claimed he was inspired by a lawmaker and a cleric who encouraged holy war against Americans and other foreigners. “He said, ‘Thank God I didn’t kill any Muslims.’”

Seddiqi, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said he had seen reports from local authorities describing Naqibullah as a calm and devout Muslim who

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