Kabul, Afghanistan Two British election workers and their Afghan interpreter were slain Wednesday in eastern Afghanistan, the first fatalities in a string of assaults on U.N. staff preparing for crucial balloting.
The United Nations said the killings would slow a drive to register some 10 million Afghans for the September vote, but officials promised to press on despite the surging Taliban-led violence.
The Britons were killed in Nuristan province, 100 miles east of the capital, Kabul, said Global Risk Strategies, a London-based security company. The company did not identify them but said they had been working with the United Nations.
A white U.N. helicopter brought the bodies to Kabul on Wednesday.
Global Risk Strategies said "local bandits" were believed to be behind the attack, but Afghan officials said it was unclear if it was a "criminal or a terrorist incident."
"Unfortunately we have a lot of irresponsible armed people in this country," Interior Ministry spokesman Latfulla Mashal said. "We don't know who was behind it."
However, President Hamid Karzai condemned what he called a "cowardly act aimed at terrorizing the people of Afghanistan" and disrupting the election.
"Afghanistan will continue relentlessly on the path that the people of the country have chosen: the path of peace prosperity and reconstruction," his office said in a statement.
Nuristan, a rugged region of high peaks and forested valleys on the Pakistani border, has its share of bandits. But it is also a stronghold of renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a top U.S. terror suspect.
Hekmatyar, a veteran of Afghanistan's civil war, has joined remnants of the ousted Taliban regime in promising to drive out foreign troops and unseat Karzai, the U.S.-backed favorite in the election.
Farooq Wardak, the Afghan government's top election official, said the killings could have "very serious consequences" for the upcoming vote.
"The election wouldn't have that much international credibility" without U.N. observers, Wardak said.
U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said there would be "at least a delay" in voter registration in Nuristan. But he said the process would go ahead elsewhere.
"It happened in a specific place," he said. "We look at security on a case-by-case basis."
Global Risk has been surveying rural Afghanistan to help the U.N. decide where it is safe to open offices to register voters.
Almost 2 million people in eight major cities already signed up for the election. Nuristan is one of four provinces where a lack of security has held up voter registration.