Members of relief agency staff slain in ambush

Friday, June 4, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan -- A Nobel Prize-winning relief agency halted its long-established operations in Afghanistan on Thursday after five staff members were killed in the deadliest attack on foreign aid workers since the fall of the Taliban. Wednesday's assault in northwestern Badghis province on workers with Medecins Sans Frontieres raised fears that insurgents already disrupting development efforts in Afghanistan's south and east are now targeting projects in the north. A purported spokesman for the Taliban claimed responsibility.

Attackers using rifles and grenades shredded a four-wheel-drive vehicle painted with the MSF red logo, killing all five people inside: a Norwegian doctor, a Dutch logistician, a Belgian project coordinator, an Afghan driver and an Afghan translator.

The attackers disconnected the vehicle's radio but stole nothing.

"For the time being, our activities will be suspended nationwide," MSF spokeswoman Vicky Hawkins said. "In the coming weeks we will analyze this event in-depth, but for the moment our priority is to take care of those most affected by this tragedy."

The agency said it was pulling all foreign workers back to Kabul, leaving local staff in place for emergency duties. Spokesman Bas Tielens in Amsterdam, Netherlands, would not say whether the group might pull out of some areas altogether.

MSF has been in Afghanistan since 1979, providing basic health care and support to hospitals through 80 expatriates and 1,400 local people. The organization, also known as Doctors Without Borders, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.

A purported Taliban spokesman, Mullah Abdul Hakim Latifi, claimed responsibility for the attack and threatened more against international aid workers "working for the policy of America."

There was no independent confirmation of that claim. But if it is legitimate, it would signal a worrying escalation in an insurgency that has claimed hundreds of lives this year despite the deployment of 9,000 extra U.S. forces in recent months. There now are about 20,000 American soldiers in the country.

At least 33 aid workers have been killed in Afghanistan since March 2003 -- mostly in rebel attacks in the lawless south and east. Taliban and al-Qaida militants rarely have been active in the more stable north.

In a sign of continuing dangers in the south, an Afghan official said Thursday that U.S. and Afghan troops backed by American warplanes killed 13 Taliban militants in the mountains of Kandahar province and arrested eight others. Two U.S. soldiers and one Afghan soldier were wounded.

The U.S. military could not immediately be reached for comment.

Danish aid group DACAAR said it ordered staff members who are digging wells and helping farmers in Badghis to stay off the roads until it can reassess security. Its head of Afghan operations, Gorm Pedersen, said the possibility of politically motivated attacks was "most worrying."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan "was distressed and angered" by the "cold-blooded" killings of the aid workers, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said in a statement issued at the body's New York headquarters.

The slain foreigners were identified as Egil Tynaes, a 63-year-old doctor from Norway, Dutch logistician Willem Kwint, 40, and project coordinator Helene de Beir, 30, from Belgium.

The United Nations immediately halted voter registration in Badghis for September's planned general elections and grounded its refugee agency staff, but it was continuing activities elsewhere.

Anja de Beer of ACBAR, an umbrella group for relief organizations in Afghanistan, said if group members pull back their operations further, "people in isolated areas, whose need is enormous, will not be helped, and that's deeply tragic."

U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai is under pressure because of the slow pace of reconstruction in Afghanistan, where an estimated 80 percent of the 27 million people live in poverty.

He expressed sorrow about the attack Thursday, but played down worries over security, saying ordinary Afghans were more concerned about reviving the economy.

"I think we are quite all right with security," Karzai said. "We have incidents, sure, we must reduce them. But this is not an alarming thing."

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