image copyrightReutersimage captionThe Halo Trust workers were shot "in cold blood"

At least 10 mine clearers working for Halo Trust in Afghanistan's northern province of Baghlan have been shot dead, and more than a dozen wounded.

Afghan officials blamed the Taliban, saying militants "started shooting everyone" in the compound.

But Halo Trust CEO James Cowan told the BBC that "the local Taliban… came to our aid and scared the assailants off". The Taliban also denied the attack.

Violence has surged since the US began to withdraw its last troops on 1 May.

The departure of international troops comes amid a deadlock in peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

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Several districts in Baghlan province have seen fierce fighting between the Taliban and government forces.

The workers were killed when masked gunmen burst into their compound at 21:50 (17:20 GMT) on Tuesday, after they had spent a day removing mines from a nearby field.

Interior Ministry spokesman Tareq Arian told reporters that "the Taliban entered a compound of a mine-clearing agency… and started shooting everyone".

But the Taliban issued a swift denial.

"We condemn attacks on the defenceless and view it as brutality," the militant group's spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, tweeted. "We have normal relations with NGOs [non-governmental organisations]. Our Mujahideen will never carry out such brutal attacks."

Mr Cowan of the Halo Trust told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the attackers went "bed to bed" shooting the workers "in cold blood" – but that the local Taliban helped the deminers.

"I think it's important to know that the Taliban have denied responsibility for this, and indeed the local Taliban group came to our aid and scared the assailants off," he said.

"We don't know who the assailants were – we could speculate about that but I won't – but I think we have the capacity as the Halo Trust to operate on both sides of the line in this awful conflict," he added.

Mr Cowan later told the BBC Afghan service that the attackers specifically targeted members of the Hazara ethnic minority group.

Hazaras, Afghanistan's third-largest ethnic group, have faced long-term discrimination and persecution, primarily because of their Shia Muslim faith. In recent years, they have faced abductions and killings at the hands of both the Islamic State group and the Taliban, which are both Sunni Muslim.

"A group of armed men came to our camp and sought out members of the Hazara community, and then murdered them," Mr Cowan said. "This was not expected. The broader security situation [in Afghanistan] is understood, but this kind of cold-blooded killing was not expected."

Attackers unknown but motive clear

Analysis by Inayatulhaq Yasini, BBC Kabul Bureau Editor

Halo Trust and other demining organisations have been working in Afghanistan for more than three decades, freely moving even near frontlines. A fact I have seen for myself.

Halo Trust has 3,000 staff in Afghanistan. Warring factions have been helpful to deminers in the past – however it has been rare for the Taliban or other groups to come forward to help victims of an attack. Halo Trust mostly hires local people, which also creates jobs for local communities.

The organisation's CEO, James Cowan, told the BBC the attackers had "fled to an area which is not controlled by the Taliban". The province of Baghlan where the attack happened has been the scene of fighting between the government and the Taliban for weeks. Anyone can exploit a situation where different local militias and warlords are also active in the province.

It is difficult to know who carried out the attack, but the aim is clear: to incite ethnic tension among Afghans, where 40 years of war has already widely affected unity in the country.

In a clip police in Baghlan shared with reporters, a survivor of the attack also said the gunmen had asked if any of them were from the Hazara minority community before opening fire.

"Five to six armed men came, they took us to a room," he said. "First they took all our money and mobile phones, and then they asked who our leader was. They asked, 'Is any Hazara here among you?' We told them, 'We don't have any Hazara here.'"

He added that he had been shot in the head, but managed to escape through a window.

The UK-based Halo Trust was founded in 1988 to remove ordnance left behind from the almost decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

It was supported by Princess Diana, as well as by her son Prince Harry.

media captionTop US commander General Scott Miller reflecting on NATO forces' time in Afghanistan before their departure in May