KABUL (Reuters) - Twenty-four-year-old Fatima Khalil, known as Natasha, was a shining example of young, progressive Afghanistan.
Born a refugee in Quetta, Pakistan, she won a U.S. Embassy scholarship to study human rights at an American university in Kyrgyzstan.
She spoke six languages, was a straight-A student, loved dancing and could have worked overseas like many educated Afghans to escape her country's constant conflict, according to her family.
Instead, she decided to move to Kabul last year to work as a donor coordinator for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), where she was killed by a bomb attack on a vehicle taking her to the office on Saturday.
Her family are asking anguished questions.
"Why was she brutally murdered and taken away from our lives? The pain is so devastating. The loss is so great," Khalil's brother-in-law Omaid Sharifi told Reuters. He and his wife Lima finally arrived in Kabul on Tuesday, after flying back from the United States, Lima wishing desperately the whole way that her sister could be "brought back".
She died alongside longserving AIHRC driver Jawid Folad - described by colleagues as an unwavering positive presence in a high-stress job. Her loss has shaken many in urban civil society already worried by a rise in assassinations of those most needed to rebuild just as Afghanistan's peace process is set to start.
"She was laid with her beautiful eyes closed and her hand placed on her heart ... a part of the future was buried," Khalil's friend, artist Rada Akbar, tweeted after the funeral.
Security sources are aware of a growing trend of deliberate killings, mostly unclaimed, in recent weeks that have also taken the lives of prosecutors, pro-government moderate religious preachers and the family of a political writer.
They believe the Taliban or groups aligned with it are conducting a covert strategy to send chills through civil society and tear apart trust in democratic rule of law and human rights to weaken the government's position in peace talks with the Taliban, likely to start mid-July.
"This is a dangerous game," a senior interior ministry source told Reuters. "They want to chase their goal of weakening the government and create fear among the people by targeting effective personalities in civil society."
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied the group was involved in attacks on civil society or religious leaders and accused the government of trying to harm the Taliban's reputation, and failing to take responsibility for worsening security.
A security source told Reuters two bombmakers suspected of being involved in two assassinations, including the blast that killed Khalil, had been arrested in Kabul and investigators were trying to determine whether they were linked to militant groups.
European ambassadors in Kabul said in a statement they were alarmed at growing violence, including Saturday's blast.
"The EU strongly condemns targeted killings, which have risen sharply in recent weeks, directed against clergy, journalists ... human rights defenders, healthcare personnel and others," the statement said. "It appears to be a deliberate attempt to stifle debate in advance of peace negotiations."
(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi and Abdul Qadir Sediqi; Additional reporting and writing by Charlotte Greenfield, Editing by William Maclean)
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