Outrage rippled through Afghanistan Wednesday as funerals were held for three female media workers gunned down in the eastern city of Jalalabad, with insurgent violence increasing as peace talks stall.
Journalists, activists and judges have recently been ambushed by gunmen or killed by explosives attached to their vehicles as surging violence forces many into hiding -- with some leaving Afghanistan.
The killings have escalated since peace talks began last year between the Afghan government and the Taliban, sparking fears that the insurgents are eliminating perceived opponents as negotiations stall.
The three women were shot and killed in two separate attacks just ten minutes apart after they left the Enikass TV station on Tuesday in what one colleague described as an orchestrated hit.
An Islamic State affiliate later claimed responsibility for the murders, saying its gunmen carried out the killings of what it called "journalists working for one of the media stations loyal to the apostate Afghan government".
Friends and family gathered at the women's funerals in Jalalabad where men took turns digging fresh graves with a shovel as others pleaded for an end to the deaths.
Rohan Sadat described his sister Sadia Sadat as "shy but active" who was also passionate about fighting for women's rights and had planned to attend university and study law.
"We have buried her with all her hopes here," Sadat told AFP.
Another colleague at Enikass TV who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the station was reeling from the murders, saying the three victims were like "family".
"Three innocent girls were shot dead in the daylight in the middle of the city. Nobody is safe anymore," said the colleague.
In December, another female employee working for Enikass TV was murdered in Jalalabad in similar circumstances.
- 'Fear and terrorism' -
Anger also simmered online with social media users lashing out over the latest killings.
"It seems this war is not for Islam, it is just for power through spreading fear and terrorism," wrote Ghani Khan.
"These girls were working to help their families. They were not [at] war with the Taliban. They were poor, they just worked to feed their family," said Rauf Afghan.
Afghanistan has long been ranked as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.
At least nine media workers have been killed since peace talks with the Taliban started in September, according to the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee.
US officials have blamed the Taliban for the wave of violence, while the Kabul government said the insurgents routinely hide behind Islamic State claims to cover their tracks.
The Taliban has denied the charges.
The assassinations have been acutely felt by women, whose rights were crushed under the Taliban's five-year rule, including being banned from working.
Intelligence officials have previously linked the renewed threat against female professionals to demands at the peace talks for their rights to be protected.
Many of the targeted hits are believed to take months of careful planning -- to catch officials off guard -- and are increasingly more sophisticated than the formerly favoured suicide bomb used by jihadists.
The killings come as the US special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad returned to Kabul this week for meetings with Afghan leaders, in a bid to revive a flagging peace process as violence soars across the country and a deadline for US troop withdrawal draws closer.
Donald Trump's administration, eager to end America's longest war, tasked Khalilzad with negotiating with the Taliban, culminating in a deal signed in Qatar on February 29 last year.
The accord states that the US will withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by May, with the Taliban promising not to allow territory to be used by terrorists.
Speculation is rife over America's future in Afghanistan after the White House announced plans to review the withdrawal deal brokered by Khalilzad and the Taliban.