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Afghanistan: UN Refugee Agency Partially Suspends Operations After Attacks

The UN refugee agency says it is withdrawing its international staff from parts of Afghanistan amid a series of recent attacks that have targeted UN workers and buildings. The decision follows the killing on 16 November of a French UN aid worker by suspected Taliban supporters.

Prague, 18 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations' refugee agency, the UN High Commmissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is pulling its foreign staff out of southern and eastern Afghanistan in response to the 16 November killing of a French staff member in Ghazni.

A statement from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan says all UN staff in the cities of Ghazni, Kandahar, Gardez, and Jalalabad have been instructed to reduce their travel and for Afghan staff to stay at home as a security precaution.

The move could affect tens of thousands of returning Afghan refugees who rely on the UNHCR and other UN agencies for help with food and construction materials as they try to rebuild the country.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan indicated in New York yesterday that some UN operations in Afghanistan would be temporarily suspended. He said such moves are justified in order to protect international staff. "Obviously, we are taking measures to protect the staff and continue our operations as best as we can," he said. "We are not going to be reckless. It will entail some changes in the way we operate and I think we are beginning to take measures already."

In Kabul, UNHCR spokeswoman Maki Shinohara told RFE/RL that foreign staff were evacuated from Ghazni as soon as news of 29-year-old Bettina Goislard's killing reached Kabul. "Immediately after the incident, we basically called the staff from Ghazni [back to Kabul]," Shinohara said. "There is another expatriate who had been working with Bettina [Goislard in Ghazni] since last year. She [has been taken back to Kabul] together with [Goislard's] body."

The decision to pull staff out from other parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan came after UN officials in Kabul reviewed details about Goislard's death and several other recent attacks against UN targets -- including a bomb attack on a UN vehicle in Paktiya Province on 16 November and a car bomb that exploded last week outside of the UN offices in Kandahar. Neither of those attacks caused any fatalities.

Ghazni's provincial governor, Asadullah Khaled, says two men linked to the Taliban used a motorcycle to carry out the killing of Goislard in her clearly marked UN vehicle as it passed through a Ghazni bazaar.

Khaled says local police fired at the attackers, wounding one of them, and captured both. He also said local residents were infuriated by Goislard's killing. "These two people are linked to the Taliban and they confessed their crime," he said. "The witnesses say local people helped the police to capture them."

A statement from Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai says the entire nation is shocked by what he called an "act of merciless killing." Karzai also said the Afghan people will never forgive terrorists who kill innocent people or those who are trying to help with Afghan reconstruction.

Although Goislard's death marks the first time that a foreign UN staff member has been killed in Afghanistan since the collapse of the Taliban regime, it is merely the latest in a series of recent attacks against aid workers.

One Afghan UN worker was killed at his home in northern Afghanistan in April last year. A foreign staff member of the International Red Cross was killed last March in Afghanistan's southwestern Helmand Province.

In August, an Afghan worker for the humanitarian group Mercy Corps was killed along with six other Afghans by an ambush in Helmand Province.

Early in September, four Afghans working with the Danish Committee for Aid to Afghan Refugees were killed in central Afghanistan.

Also in September, an engineer working for the UN's partner agency, the Volunteer Association for the Rehabilitation of Afghanistan, was killed by attackers in Helmand Province.

Annan described the 16 November attack as an attempt to derail international assistance to the Afghan people. "It was a vicious attack on our colleague and to kill deliberately someone who was in Afghanistan to assist the people is something that no one can excuse and, whatever the cause, cannot be justified," he said.

In Pakistan, UNHCR spokesman Jack Redden said the agency also is temporarily closing its voluntary repatriation centers for Afghan refugees in both Quetta and Peshawar until the security situation in Afghanistan "is clarified."