ICRC halts staff movements in Afghanistan after attack

by Nita Bhalla | @nitabhalla | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 31 May 2013 10:28 GMT

An Afghan policeman keeps watch at the ICRC compound in Jalalabad province, May 29, 2013. REUTERS/ Parwiz

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The attack is the second of its kind on the ICRC in Afghanistan since it started operations in the country in 1987

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has halted all staff movement in Afghanistan after a militant attack on its office in the east of the country killed one Afghan guard, a senior ICRC official said, calling the assault a "despicable" act.

Four insurgents, two wearing suicide vests, attacked the ICRC office in Jalalabad on Wednesday evening - shooting dead the ICRC guard. Afghan police killed the four attackers and rescued seven foreign staff members from the building.

The attack is the second of its kind on the ICRC in Afghanistan since it started operations in the country in 1987. ICRC water engineer Ricardo Munguia was shot dead in Afghanistan in 2003.

"It is a brutal, despicable and ... a very senseless attack against an organisation that has been present in Afghanistan for the past 30 years," said Jacques De Maio, ICRC's head of operations for South Asia in a video uploaded onto YouTube on Thursday.

"All movements have been frozen throughout Afghanistan. There is not a single ICRC delegate or employee who is moving or taking the roads today in Afghanistan. Our sub delegation in Jalalabad has been closed."

De Maio, who did not say how long ICRC would restrict movement in the country, added that the highly organised nature of the attack ruled it out as an isolated incident.   

The Geneva-based ICRC's $90 million-a-year operations in Afghanistan are the group's biggest in the world. Some 1,800 ICRC staff work on projects ranging from providing orthopedic limbs to the war wounded to visiting militants in Afghan jails.


The organisation - which prides itself on its neutrality and ability to negotiate access through talks with militant groups, as well as the Afghan government - has in recent months increasingly warned of the security challenges posed by aid workers.

In March, ICRC Director-General Yves Daccord said charities in the country would find it harder to reach communities in need and may be forced to shut down operations due to insecurity after foreign troops leave in 2014.

NATO-led forces, which have been fighting militant groups linked to al Qaeda in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion of 2001, are set to withdraw by the end of next year. They numbered about 130,000 at their peak and stand at approximately 100,000 today.

A still-resilient Taliban and concerns over the ability of the Afghan security forces to keep the militants in check have fuelled fears among humanitarians that the conflict will worsen, hampering their ability to assist millions of people.

The attack on the ICRC comes less than a week after Taliban insurgents attacked the office of the International Organisation for Migration in Kabul, killing at least three civilians and wounding four foreign aid workers.

Last month, a driver and health worker of the Afghan Red Cross were shot dead in northern Afghanistan as they were returning from giving vaccinations to poor villagers. The attack prompted the Red Cross to suspend work in the area, leaving thousands without health care.

ICRC's De Maio said it was important to understand why this attack took place.

"There isn't a single Afghan that wouldn't recognise that we are strictly independent and humanitarian in what we do. So there is a lot of incomprehension why four people would actually kill themselves to attack an unprotected structure of a strictly humanitarian organisation like ours," he said.

"It was clearly a planned attack with a level of organisation and that rules it out as an isolated incident by some individuals. This quality of this attack has compelled us to re-define the level of danger there is for humanitarian players like us, to operate in the area."