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September 14, 2004

Under Attack in Afghanistan, UN Weighs Options

by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS - The United Nations, which was forced to withdraw its international staff from Iraq last year because of growing violence, is weighing the possibility of downsizing its humanitarian operations in Afghanistan following the weekend destruction of four of its offices in the war-ravaged country.

The agency worst hit by the looting and destruction – the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – is relocating its personnel out of the province of Herat.

"All UNHCR activities in western Afghanistan have been temporarily suspended, including the daily convoys of Afghan refugees in Iran who wish to repatriate," Ruud Lubbers, the high commissioner for refugees, told reporters Monday.

"This suspension comes at the worst possible time for Afghanistan," Lubbers said, "when increasing numbers of [Afghan] refugees are coming back to their homeland, and just a few weeks ahead of an election that will shape the future of the country."

He also said that it is crucial that UN staff be allowed to do their "very important work at such a vital juncture."

"This process must take place in safety: it is intolerable that anyone's life should be endangered," Lubbers said.

At a press conference in Kabul on Sunday, the UN deputy special representative for Afghanistan Filippo Grandi said the damage inflicted on two UN offices – the UNHCR and the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) – was devastating.

"I have seen in my life destroyed UN premises, but I have hardly ever seen the type of destruction that I saw in the UNAMA office," he told reporters.

"The office is in ashes and everything is burned. They spilled gasoline and threw matches and the whole office does not exist anymore," he added.

But Grandi said the temporary removal of 38 UNAMA staffers, from Herat to the capital of Kabul, was not a sign that the world body would be abandoning the city.

The angry protests over the weekend were directed at the government's decision to remove a popular governor, Ismail Khan, who was replaced by a new governor, Sayed Muahmmad Khairkhwa. Both are members of the same faction, the Jamiat-i-Islami. Khan was the leader of a major resistance movement against the Soviet Union when it militarily occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The violence against the United Nations was apparently prompted by a "strong statement of support" for the new governor.

Asked whether it was "wise" for the United Nations to take sides against Khan, Grandi said: "I think what we did was to support the appointment of the new governor by the central government. This is what we have traditionally done, and we were particularly emphatic in our support to the new governor, and we continue to be."

The clash between the demonstrators and Afghan police resulted in four deaths and up to 50 wounded, including two UN international staffers.

According to a New York Times report from Herat, about 60 UN staffers and other foreign humanitarian workers had to be evacuated from underground bunkers where they sought refuge.

Besides the destruction of the offices of the UNHCR and UNAMA, the demonstrators also attacked offices of the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the Danish Aid Committee, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Lubbers said this was the second time in less than a month that UNHCR was forced to suspend its operations in western Afghanistan.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the attacks were "perpetrated by a tiny group who tries to undermine the government's efforts to restore security and stability in this part of the country."

Guy Candusso, vice president of the UN Staff Union, told IPS that the United Nations had been forewarned about the violence in Afghanistan.

He said the Union's standing committee on security had asked Secretary-general Annan to consider withdrawing all UN staff if the security situation continues to deteriorate.

The Union sounded the alarm bell last month following the bombing of a UN voter registration site in southwestern Afghanistan.

"In the light of the recent violence, particularly the latest incident, the standing committee urges the secretary-general to conduct a comprehensive review of the security situation in Afghanistan and consider withdrawing its staff from the field offices until such time as new security measures are in place," the resolution said.

The Staff Union also said that "the safety of the staff remains the highest priority."

Last month, the humanitarian aid organization, Medecins sans Frontieres, pulled out of Afghanistan after nearly 24 years. The reasons for MSF's withdrawal included a deterioration of the security environment in Afghanistan and, more importantly, the misuse of humanitarian aid by U.S. military forces in the country.

MSF also said it was unhappy with the lack of progress in a government investigation of the killing of five of its aid workers in the northern province of Baghdis in June, presumably by insurgents. MSF, which employed about 1,400 local staff and 80 international staff, ended all its operations in August.

Candusso said the situation in Iraq was equally bad. The bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad in August last year left 22 international staffers dead and several wounded.

Although virtually all international staffers were withdrawn immediately after the bombing, the United Nations has been dispatching smaller groups of staffers to Iraq during the last few weeks to assist the interim government, which is due to hold nationwide elections before the end of January next year.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Thalif Deen has been Inter Press Service's U.N. Bureau Chief since 1992. A
    former Information Officer at the U.N. Secretariat and a one-time member of
    the Sri Lanka delegation to the General Assembly sessions, he is currently
    editor of the Journal of the Group of 77, published in collaboration with
    IPS. A Fulbright-Hayes scholar, he holds a Master's degree in Journalism
    from Columbia University in New York.

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