Taliban Stealing Trucks From Relief Groups

Taliban forces and other armed groups in Afghanistan are resorting to theft, looting and burglary in a frenzied bid to replace hundreds of trucks and other military vehicles destroyed in U.S. attacks, sources said Wednesday. 

Armed groups have forced their way into offices of a number of aid agencies in the last several days, ransacked offices and driven away in utility vehicles and trucks, the sources said. In one case, the thieves even brought in a mechanic to fix up and drive off a fleet of broken-down trucks. 

"The situation is deteriorating rapidly — and I mean very, very rapidly," an official with an international aid agency said Wednesday. "We're hearing the reports of stolen vehicles, and it wouldn't surprise me to hear many more in the coming days."

The news comes amid reports that U.S. fighters mistakenly bombed a Red Cross warehouse on the outskirts of Kabul. A U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet dropped 1,000-pound bombs on the warehouse early Tuesday, a Defense Department statement said.

U.S. forces did not know the warehouses were being used by the Red Cross, the statement said. They were among several targeted because officials believed they contained Taliban military equipment, and military vehicles had been seen nearby.

'Systematic' Effort

A source in Peshawar said the U.N. and non-governmental agencies involved in Afghan relief operations had made emergency plans in the expectation many more vehicles would be stolen, damaged or destroyed by the Taliban. The officials could not discuss their plans for fear of Taliban retribution. 

The thefts, looting and confiscations are not isolated incidents, sources said. "Systematically, vehicles and equipment are being taken," said Stephanie Bunker, spokesman for the United Nations Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance to Afghanistan. "It is interrupting the aid operations." 

Aid workers in Afghanistan have been routinely harassed and intimidated by Taliban forces in recent months. But officials said the widening vehicle thefts were a new and troubling sign that law and order among Taliban troops was breaking down, as fighters grabbed whatever they could to either take up the fight or flee. 

Refugees arriving in this Pakistani frontier city in the last several days said they had witnessed vehicle confiscations and other thefts as they left their country. Some said they had also seen a number of older cars and trucks simply abandoned along the roadside to the border, or traded to the Taliban in exchange for free passage. 

But it's the jeeps, transports and other larger-sized vehicles that are particularly valued possessions by the Taliban, as they lose more equipment to U.S. bombing raids. With motorized transport a relative luxury for ordinary Afghans, the vehicles operated by the international aid agencies, truckers and farmers are a prime target. 

The Taliban have left some aid operations alone, at least for now. The World Food Program on Wednesday sent 49 trucks in a convoy headed for Kabul, and officials said they were hopeful the food — and the trucks — would reach their destination. 

But just two days earlier, a group of men broke into the offices of the Intergovernmental Organization for Migration in Mazar-i-Sharif, beat up and robbed the office's two guards, sources said. The men then broke into a vehicle compound and tried to steal three Land Cruisers. 

None of the vehicles were working properly, so the men stormed off after promising to return. They did exactly that the next morning, showing up with a mechanic who was able to get all three cruisers running before the men drove them off, according to IOM spokesman Jeff McMurdo. 

McMurdo said he could not be sure if the thieves were Taliban soldiers. IOM personnel who phoned in the report of the incident are usually allowed to communicate with other offices only in the presence of Taliban guards, and offered few details. But the pair of Taliban soldiers who normally guard the IOM office were not on duty that night, leading to suspicion they may have been involved. 

IOM said they also had reports that several other vehicles had been taken from the area in recent days, but could offer no details. They also had no information on the whereabouts of their cruisers. 

Officials said a number of aid workers had stopped using the larger official vehicles in favor of smaller cars that drew less interest from potential thieves. 

Foreign Mercenaries

There are also reports of armed bands of foreign mercenaries stealing vehicles and looting homes and offices in some areas. 

In a Tuesday press conference, Bunker said she had received reliable reports that some 20 armed Arab fighters forced their way into the offices of the Islamic Relief, a non-governmental relief organization, in Kandahar on Saturday night. A fight broke out when a group of 15 Taliban showed up to intervene, Bunker said. 

Fearing a gunfight might break out, nervous Islamic Relief staff gave up their vehicle at the insistence of the armed group. Officials then contacted local officials in an effort to recover the vehicle. "but the authorities were not very optimistic," one official said.