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UN pulls out half its Afghanistan staff and threatens total withdrawal

Tom Coghlan in Kabul

(Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP)


November 5, 2009

The United Nations today temporarily pulled half its international staff out of Afghanistan and threatened that a complete and permanent withdrawal could follow.

Amid an atmosphere of increasing gloom in Afghanistan, the UN Special Representative in Kabul, Kai Eide delivered a pointed warning to the government of Hamid Karzai.

"There is a belief among some, that the international community (presence) will continue whatever happens because of the strategic importance of Afghanistan," he told a press conference this morning. "I would like to emphasise that that’s not true."

He added that the Afghan government must demonstrate a willingness to reform and address corruption and the power of warlords.

Of the 1,100 foreign UN workers, 600 will now leave until the situation improves. The remaining UN workers are to be relocated inside Kabul from the current network of 93 different UN guesthouses, many of them privately run civilian houses, to a one large compound which is currently used for the European Union police training mission. The new arrangement will echo the 'Green Zone’ found in Baghdad.

The move follows last week’s attack on a UN guesthouse in the heart of the Afghan capital, Kabul, in which five UN international staff were killed by gunmen and suicide bombers who were disguised in police uniform.

Other aid agencies in Afghanistan have monitored the UN response to the latest attack but most appear to be maintaining their staffing levels in the country for now.

"It will not have major impact on the operations of international NGOs. Those with staff out of country will keep them there but most staff are still on the ground," said Lex Kassenberg, the head of CARE International in Afghanistan.

Aid agencies said that tighter security restrictions imposed during the election period would remain in place but several said they would resist moves to put armed guards outside their offices, instead strengthening external defences and fitting cameras.

Aid workers told The Times that the UN move was not widely supported within the wider aid community. "We are really concerned about how the UN will provide services while their staff are outside the country and who will pick up the slack," said one aid worker, who asked not to be named. "There is a perception that this seems like an overreaction which sends a bad message."

The head of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon Moon, was critical of the response of both Afghan and Nato security forces following the Kabul attack last week.

Two UN security guards armed with pistols held off the Taleban attack for over an hour before being killed. Another armed UN worker continued resistance from the guesthouse laundry room. Some 20 UN workers were able to escape as a result.

However, Afghan security forces took more than an hour to arrive on the scene.

"For at least an hour, and perhaps more, those two security officers held off the attackers. They fought through the corridors of the building and from the rooftop," Ban told the UN General Assembly. "They held off the attackers long enough for their colleagues to escape, armed only with pistols against assailants carrying automatic weapons and grenades and wearing suicide vests."

Mr Ban said that "the UN security team repeatedly called for help from both Afghanistan government forces and other international partners". He added: "Initial reports suggest that it was approximately an hour, if not longer, before Afghan police or others arrived on the scene."

Both the Afghan government and Nato denied that they had failed to respond effectively to the attack on UN staff.

The UN has 6,700 staff working in Afghanistan, of whom 5,600 are Afghan nationals.





:: Article nr. 59758 sent on 05-nov-2009 14:08 ECT

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Link: www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/Afghanistan/article6904098.ece



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