When police stopped a van that was travelling across central Afghanistan to the western city of Herat, they were in for a big surprise: it was full of Western tourists.

The visitors’ presence in one of the world’s most dangerous countries made headlines on Thursday after their vehicle, now under police escort, was caught in a suspected Taliban ambush.

It is debatable whether the presence of security forces endangered the tourists’ lives or saved them – at least five foreigners were slightly wounded.

But their trip across a stretch of country widely seen to be risky underlined the dangers such travellers face, and the difficulty Afghanistan’s stretched police force has in protecting them.

“Because of the police they’re alive,” said a senior Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Otherwise they would all be dead.”

In the van, which was badly burned in the attack, were six Britons, two Americans and a German, part of a steady trickle of visitors lured by the stunning beauty of the landscapes and landmarks and, in some cases, by the thrill of danger.

In this instance, the group had set out from Bamiyan, once home to giant Buddha statues carved into the cliffs until they were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

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