KABUL, Afghanistan - An Afghan police commander opened fire Friday on two Associated Press journalists inside a security forces base in eastern Afghanistan, killing prize-winning photographer Anja Niedringhaus and wounding veteran correspondent Kathy Gannon.
Niedringhaus, 48, who had covered conflict zones from the Balkans in the 1990s to Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan and was part of a team of AP photographers who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, died instantly of her wounds.
Gannon, 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.
"Anja was a vibrant, dynamic journalist well-loved for her insightful photographs, her warm heart and joy for life. We are heartbroken at her loss," said AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll, speaking in New York.
Niedringhaus and Gannon 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 Afghan police and military, reporting on their determination to build up their often underequipped forces to face the fight with militants. Gannon also knows several leading Taliban well, and was one of the few Western reporters allowed into Afghanistan during the Taliban's rule in the 1990s.
Friday's attack was particularly startling because it came as an insider shooting by a member of the Afghan security forces - the first known instance of an insider attack on journalists.
It came on the eve of Afghanistan's elections for a new president and provincial councils. The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the voting and have stepped up violence in recent weeks, including increased attacks on civilian targets in Kabul and the killings of a Swedish journalist and Afghan journalist for the French news agency Agence France-Presse.
Niedringhaus and Gannon were traveling Friday in a convoy of election workers delivering ballots in the eastern city of Khost. The convoy was protected by Afghan security forces. They were in their own car with a translator and an AP Television News freelancer.
They had arrived in the heavily guarded district compound and were waiting for the convoy to move, said the freelancer, who witnessed the shooting.
A unit commander identified by authorities as Naqibullah walked up to the car, yelled "Allahu Akbar" - God is Great - and opened fire on them in the back seat with his AK-47, the freelancer said. The officer then surrendered to the other police and was arrested.
There have been repeated instances in recent years of Afghan police or military personnel opening fire on and killing international troops working with the country's security forces. The attackers are usually either suspected Taliban infiltrators or Afghans who have come to oppose the foreign presence in the country.
At their worse, in 2012, such attacks happened on average nearly once a week, killing more than 60 coalition troops and prompting NATO to reduce joint operations with Afghan forces.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied responsibility for the attack.
Khost Provincial Police Chief Faizullah Ghyrat said the attacker, Naqibullah, 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 and officials said they were still investigating the shooter's background.
Ghyrat said the police commander, who he said was 25 years old, had seen the journalists, decided to act, and then demanded the assault rifle from one of his subordinates.
In a memo to AP staff, AP President Gary Pruitt remembered Niedringhaus as "spirited, intrepid and fearless, with a raucous laugh that we will always remember."
"Anja is the 32nd AP staffer to give their life in pursuit of the news since AP was founded in 1846," he wrote. "This is a profession of the brave and the passionate, those committed to the mission of bringing to the world information that is fair, accurate and important. Anja Niedringhaus met that definition in every way."
Niedringhaus was part of an AP team that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in breaking news photography for coverage of the war in Iraq, and was awarded the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation.