Ten members of a medical team, including six Americans, were shot and killed by militants as they were returning from providing eye treatment and other health care in remote villages of northern Afghanistan, a spokesman for the team said Saturday.

Dirk Frans, director of the International Assistance Mission, said one German, one Briton and two Afghans also were a part of the team that made the two-week trip to Nuristan province. They drove to the province, left their vehicles and hiked for hours over mountainous terrain to reach the Parun valley in the province's northwest.

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International Assistance Mission personnel travel in Land Rovers through an unnamed region of Afghanistan. Ten IAM workers were killed Saturday. ((Handout/Associated Press))

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told The Associated Press in Pakistan that they killed the foreigners because they were "spying for the Americans" and "preaching Christianity."

Frans said the International Assistance Mission is registered as a non-profit Christian organization but it does not proselytize.

"This tragedy negatively impacts our ability to continue serving the Afghan people as IAM has been doing since 1966," the charity said in a statement. "We hope it will not stop our work that benefits over a quarter of a million Afghans each year."

Route thought safe

The team, made up of doctors, nurses and logistics personnel, was attacked as it was returning to Kabul following a two-week mission in Nuristan, Frans said. They had decided to travel through Badakhshan province to return to the capital because they thought that would be the safest route, Frans said.

Among the dead was team leader Tom Little, an optometrist from Delmar, N.Y., who has been working in Afghanistan for more than 30 years, Frans said.

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Tom Little, a New York optometrist and team leader with the International Assistance Mission, watches another doctor examine a patient in an Afghanistan clinic. Little was among the medical aid workers shot and killed by militants. ((Courtesy of David L. Evans/Associated Press))

Little was expelled by the Taliban government in August 2001 after the arrest of eight Christian aid workers — two Americans and six Germans — for allegedly trying to convert Afghans to Christianity. He returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban government was toppled in November 2001 by U.S.-backed forces.

Frans said he lost contact with Little on Wednesday. On Friday, a third Afghan member of the team, who survived the attack, called to report the killings. A fourth Afghan member of the team was not killed because he took a different route home because he had family in Jalalabad, Frans said.

According to Frans, two members of team worked for International Assistance Mission, two were former IAM workers and four others were affiliated with other organizations, which he did not disclose. He said five of the Americans were men and one was a woman. The Briton and German also were women.

Gen. Agha Noor Kemtuz, police chief in Badakhshan province, said the victims, who had been shot, were found Friday next to three bullet-riddled four-wheel-drive vehicles in Kuran Wa Munjan district. He said villagers had warned the team that the area was dangerous, but the foreigners said they were doctors and weren't afraid. He said local police said about 10 gunmen robbed them and killed them one by one.

He said the two Afghans were interpreters from Bamiyan and Panjshir provinces. A third Afghan man, who had been travelling with the group, survived.

"He told me he was shouting and reciting the holy Qur'an and saying 'I am Muslim. Don't kill me,"' Kemtuz said.