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UN Suspends Aid Operations in Afghan Region Following Attack on Staff Member - 2003-11-17

The United Nations refugee agency has suspended operations in the southern half of Afghanistan. The move comes a day after a UNHCR staff member was shot dead. The suspension also affects some offices in neighboring Pakistan.

U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe Monday called the situation in southern Afghanistan very serious a day after 29-year-old French national Bettina Goislard was shot dead as she traveled in a marked U.N. vehicle in the city of Ghazni. Spokeswoman Okabe said staff is being withdrawn from the city and the surrounding region.

"I can tell you that in addition to the staff, the international staff who have been relocated to Kabul from the city in which the attack on the French relief worker occurred, the U.N. has for now suspended operations in the south, the southeast and the east, pending further security clearance," she said.

The U.N. refugee agency has also temporarily closed voluntary repatriation centers in two cities in neighboring Pakistan until the security situation becomes clearer.

Ms. Okabe said, however, that U.N. operations in northern Afghanistan would continue.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan denounced Ms. Goislard's killing Monday, calling it an inexcusable attack on someone trying to help. He says further changes are being contemplated to protect U.N. staff in what is becoming an increasingly dangerous situation.

"Obviously, we're taking measures to protect staff and continue operations as best we can," he said. "We're not going to be reckless. It will entail some changes in the way we operate, and we're beginning to take measures already."

The suspension of U.N. activities is seen as a setback for government leaders in Kabul. The government is heavily dependent on international aid workers to extend its influence to outlying regions, many of which are controlled by regional warlords opposed to central rule.

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, has helped an estimated 2.5 million Afghan refugees to return home since its voluntary repatriation program began in March last year.