International Red Cross Committee pauses Afghanistan operations after six employees killed, two missing

Representative image: Afghan forces keep watch at the site of a bomb blast in Kabul. Photograph:( Getty )

Reuters Mazar-i-Sharif Afghanistan Feb 09, 2017, 08.10 AM (IST)

After alleged Islamic State gunmen killed six Red Cross employees on Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) decided to temporarily suspend operations in Afghanistan.  

The group, made of eight employees, was delivering emergency relief for people affected by heavy snowfall in the north of the country. Two of them are still missing.  

A massive snowstorm buried swathes of the country under 3 metres of snow, causing at least 100 victims.  

"As we speak our operations are on hold indeed, because we need to understand what exactly happened before we can hopefully resume our operations," ICRC director of operations Dominik Stillhart told Reuters in Geneva.  

"We also need and want to mark what is a horrible incident, which came as a huge shock for all our staff, first and foremost in Afghanistan but also to respect the families," he said. 

"These staff members were simply doing their duty, selflessly trying to help and support the local community," ICRC president Peter Maurer said. 

The ICRC described the attack as "the worst against us" in 20 years of humanitarian activity in the country. In a report regarding their 2016 activities, the ICRC stated that increasing security issues were making it difficult to deliver aid in many parts of the country. 

In mid December a Spanish ICRC employee along with three Afghan colleagues were abducted at a gunpoint between Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan. The local staff was immediately released, but the Spanish national was held captive for a month.   

"Daesh (the Arabic name for the Islamic State) is very active in that area," said Lotfullah Azizi, provincial governor of Jowzjan, where the Red Cross emomplyees were operating. This could be a change of scenario in Afghanistan, a country where the Islamic State seems to be more and more active. 

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said his group was not involved in the attack and promised that Taliban members would "put all their efforts into finding the perpetrators". 

The ICRC decision testimonies once again how terrorism hit primarily the local population of the area where it operates. Afghanistan is the ICRC's fourth largest humanitarian program in the world. 

Afghanistan is a country at war: the United Nations issued on Monday a report claiming that as many as  3,498 civilians were killed and 7,920 wounded in the conflict in 2016. The number of children killed and injured in Afghanistan spiked 24 per cent in 2016, with 923 killed and 2,589 injured. 

The Red Cross, as many other organisations, plays a fundamental role in healing and bringing aid to all the people hit by a constant war. It often operates in extreme conditions, but it has the mandate to guarantee the maximum level of safety for its employee. 

The decision to hold on to the operations will ultimately hit all the people who were receiving their aid, often civilians without any active role in the conflict. 
(WION with inputs from Reuters)