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WFP Workers Attacked in Afghanistan - 2002-01-17

Relief workers for the United Nations World Food Program have come under attack in Afghanistan by armed bandits. A convoy delivering wheat to refugees was stopped at gunpoint, the drivers were beaten and the food stolen. The attackers are believed to have acted on behalf of local warlords.

Two trucks, each carrying 20 tons of wheat were stopped Thursday in Aibak, a city in northern Afghanistan. Armed bandits forced the drivers out and beat them before driving away with the supplies. One truck was taken locally where the wheat was distributed, the other truck was reportedly taken to a nearby military compound. Both of the relief agency drivers were taken to Mazar-e-Sharif where they are now recovering.

U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard acknowledged the dangers those trying to deliver aid face in Afghanistan. But despite the difficulties, he said it is unlikely the WFP will take extra preventative measures as it continues its work. "It's the preference of the aid community not to work with armed escort, except in really extreme circumstances," he said. "They were delivering aid in Bosnia for a long time in war conditions without armed escort until the situation got so bad they finally had to accept it. But it's their preference to work without armed escort, and they did not have any as far as I know in this case."

When asked if perhaps the WFP should have had an armed escort, given the instability in Afghanistan, Mr. Eckhard pointed out there is no way of knowing if the situation would have been better had the drivers been carrying weapons. "It is a serious situation, but the drivers were merely beaten," he said. "If there had been weapons present who knows whether it might not have been someone shot. So I think that has to be taken into consideration as well." Just last week the World Food Program itself conceded that local warlords are a serious threat to their work. Yet despite the inherent dangers, Mr. Eckhard pointed out that the ultimate decision whether or not to employ armed escorts lies with the relief agencies themselves.