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Afghanistan: Killings Raise Concerns For Aid Workers' Safety

Eleven Afghans have been killed in two ambushes that took place in 48 hours in southern Afghanistan. Among those killed are four employees of Chemonics, a U.S.-based company that carries out antidrug projects in Afghanistan. The U.S. State Department announced that Chemonics has said it now plans to withdraw its employees from southern Afghanistan.

Prague, 20 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Gunmen ambushed a vehicle and killed six Afghans yesterday in Zabul Province, including two who worked for Chemonics and two relatives of a person killed in a similar attack the previous day.

The six Afghans killed yesterday were attacked as they were transporting to Kabul the body of one of five people killed in an assault in Helmand Province on 18 May. Two Chemonics engineers, a government engineer, a driver, and a security guard were reportedly killed it that attack.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said last night that the United States would help Afghan authorities investigate the two attacks. He said there are no indications of who the perpetrators might be. He said Chemonics has advised the U.S. Embassy in Kabul that it is withdrawing personnel from southern Afghanistan, and is taking a careful look at the security situation.

Chemonics is managing a project sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to provide alternative livelihoods to farmers growing opium poppies in Afghanistan.

It is not clear if the attacks on the Chemonics workers are linked to Afghanistan's efforts to eradicate poppy cultivation and opium production. The United States and several other countries are providing funding to support the Afghan government's efforts to fight drugs.

Nick Downie, the project coordinator of the Afghan NGO Security Office (ANSO), an organization that provides security advice to national and international NGOs in the country, believes the attackers were not aware of the exact affiliation of their victims.

"I think they were targeted because they are valid obvious targets. It doesn't matter in Afghanistan whether you are an aid worker or whether you are working for a government program or whether you are working for coalition forces. The point is they all happen to be driving the same vehicles and you know these people who carry out these attacks aren't going to stop the vehicles and try to find out whose inside before they start shooting," Downie said.

Gulab Shah Ali Khail, spokesman for the governor of southern Afghanistan's Zabul Province, told RFE/RL's Afghan Service that Taliban militants and terrorists are suspected of carrying out the attacks. "These are terrorist attacks but it does not mean that the terrorists [are in charge]," he said. "The [authority] is with the people, with the government."

Attacks by Taliban militia have increased in the past month, especially in the southern regions of Afghanistan. Afghan officials say insurgent and terrorist activities have accelerated because of the improvement of the weather and the arrival of a warm spring following a very harsh winter.

Downie from ANSO says attacks on aid workers have also increased in the country. "We went from 13 aid workers assassinated in 2003 to 24 killed in 2004," he said. "Plus, in 2004 you had at least 13 people from the elections-process killed -- nationals and internationals -- and also many other contractors in Afghanistan. So the general rate in these two years has almost doubled and at the moment we can say in within the first six months the rate of killing has increased."

The United Nations expressed concern earlier this month about aid workers in Afghanistan and the conditions for women there after three women were found dead alongside a roadside -- their bodies accompanied with a note warning international relief agencies.

On 8 May, a UN worker from Myanmar was among several civilians killed when a suicide attacker blew himself up in an Internet cafe in Kabul.

Maurizio Balbi works for Aina, an NGO that supports free media in Afghanistan. He told RFE/RL that the killing of aid workers and the kidnapping of Italian aid worker Clementina Cantoni have raised concerns among the NGO community in Kabul and elsewhere in the country.

"More or less the situation here is that the NGOs keep their staff inside their compounds. I am worried but not so worried, we knew that they were going to do something for some time. We don't know if they are criminals or what they call terrorists. I can say that most of the NGOs are quite worried about the situation," Balbi said.

Afghan officials say enemies of peace and stability in Afghanistan consider humanitarian workers legitimate targets in their fight against the central government.

Security expert Downie says there are several reasons for the increase in attacks against relief workers in Afghanistan. "Of course there is an insurgency in Afghanistan, that hasn't been suppressed," he said. "There are many other issues. One of them is counternarcotics and people trying to protect what is most valuable to them. There are factional issues and there are increasing criminal issues."

Meanwhile, the fate of Clementina Cantoni, who was abducted from her car in Kabul on 16 May, remains unclear. Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal has told the dpa news agency that a group of elders and clerics will attempt to meet the kidnapers today and negotiate the 32-year-old Italian aid worker's release. Cantoni was working for CARE International on a project to help widows and their children when she was abducted.

See also:

Kidnappers Present Demands For Italian Aid Worker
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.