Relief agency to leave Afghanistan

By Stephen Graham KABUL, Afghanistan, AP

The Nobel prize-winning relief agency Medecins Sans Frontieres announced Wednesday it was withdrawing from Afghanistan because of the slayings of five of its staff in June, fear of further attacks and its frustration with the U.S. military.

The group complained that American-led forces were using humanitarian aid “for political and military motives,” though it didn’t elaborate. It also said it was unhappy with the Afghan government’s investigation into the June 2 shootings _ claimed by Taliban militants.

“Today’s context is rendering independent humanitarian aid for the Afghan people all but impossible,” the group said in a statement.

It was unclear when the medical relief agency would stop the last of its activities in Afghanistan. The group had about 80 international volunteers and 1,400 Afghan staff working in the country before the attack, which led it to suspend several projects.

The total pullout is the most dramatic example yet of how poor security more than two years after the fall of the Taliban is still hampering the delivery of badly needed aid and reconstruction.

Anti-government militants are blamed for attacks that have killed more than 30 aid workers since March 2003, making much of the south and east virtually off-limits. The assault on the MSF workers in northwestern Badghis, the deadliest yet on an international relief agency, raised fears that the north was also becoming too dangerous.

Police say two men on a motorcycle stopped a clearly marked MSF vehicle on a rural road as they returned to the provincial capital from a clinic they were helping to run. The three Europeans and two Afghans inside were shot dead.

A purported Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility, and accused the victims of working for American interests _ a shock to MSF, which like many agencies relies on neutrality to protect staff who venture into war zones. Investigators have not ruled out a link to feuds among local warlords.

Police initially arrested 13 people over the killings. But Badghis police chief Amir Shah Naibzada said Wednesday they have all been released. “We’re still trying our best to find out who did this.”

MSF said the government’s failure to conduct a “credible investigation” was a factor in its decision to withdraw.

It also cited the “co-optation of humanitarian aid” by the U.S. military.

U.S. and NATO troops are running a string of so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams across the country. Soldiers are providing basic health care, digging wells and doing other work normally carried out by civilians.

Aid groups have long expressed concern that military was blurring the lines between relief work and soldiers’ efforts to persuade local communities to provide intelligence on militants’ movements.

A spokesman for MSF declined to elaborate, saying the group would explain its decision at a briefing in Kabul later Wednesday.

But the U.S. military rejected the suggestion that its aid projects were endangering civilian lives.

“We don’t put anyone in danger,” spokesman Maj. Jon Siepmann said. He said many aid groups were working effectively in areas where American troops also operated. Others “need to direct their concern towards the Taliban, towards al-Qaida. We do nothing here but help.”

MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders, has been working in Afghanistan for 14 years. The group, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, provides basic health care and support to hospitals in 13 of the country’s 34 provinces.