Red Cross Scales Back in Afghanistan

Red Cross Scales Back in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- The International Committee of the Red Cross announced on Monday that it will soon close two offices in Afghanistan's northern Faryab and Kunduz provinces and also reduce its activities in Balkh province following deadly attacks on its staff in the north.

Since last December, the attacks have killed one foreign and six Afghan staff members of the ICRC, while three workers have been abducted. Those abducted were later released.

Last month, 38-year-old Spanish national, physiotherapist Lorena Enebral Perez, was fatally shot inside an ICRC rehabilitation center by a patient in Balkh. Her killing had particularly shaken the organization.

Physical rehabilitation was one of the ICRC's first activities in Afghanistan, starting in Kabul in 1988, according to the organization, which now has seven centers across the country. The seven centers manufacture more than 19,000 artificial legs, arms and other orthopedic devices a year and treat hundreds of thousands of patients, according to the ICRC.

"The ICRC has been directly targeted in northern Afghanistan," said Monica Zanarelli, head of delegation for the ICRC in Afghanistan. "These incidents have affected not only the ICRC in Afghanistan, but the organization as a whole."

After intensive discussions with the organization's headquarters in Geneva, the ICRC reached the conclusion that "there is no other choice but to drastically reduce presence and activities in Afghanistan, in particular in the north of the country," Zanarelli told a press conference in the capital, Kabul.

A week before Perez's killing last month, two local ICRC staff members were released after being held by an armed group for seven months. The two were abducted on Feb. 8 while on their way to assist in the northern Jawzjan province with six other colleagues, who were shot and killed. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, and the Taliban denied involvement.

A third ICRC staffer who was abducted earlier has also been released.

There are at least 120 international and 1,800 local staff members of the ICRC working in Afghanistan and the downsizing will include both national and international staff members, added Zanarelli.

At least nine provinces in the north and northeast of the country where several thousand people need ICRC's help will be badly affected by the reduction and the closure of the offices.

"This is a difficult moment for the ICRC and the staff," added Zanarelli. "After 30 years of continuous presence in the country, we are reducing our presence and operations. But let's be very clear, we are not leaving Afghanistan. Limiting our staff's exposure to risks is our focus, all the while assisting the people affected by the conflict the best way we can."