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In Afghanistan, the Red Cross Faces Obstacles on All Sides

The international Red Cross has in the past seen its aid supplies looted, its staff threatened, attacked and even murdered. But it was stunned when U.S. warplanes bombed its aid compound in the Afghan capital, Kabul — for a second time.

"The word 'astounded' comes to mind," said Kim Gordon-Bates, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Saturday. A day earlier, the United States dropped eight tons of bombs on the compound, setting fire to three of the four buildings still standing after the previous attack on Oct. 16.

Add that to the fact that its expatriate staff is in exile, visits to prisoners of war have stopped and the Afghan winter is coming fast, and the ICRC is having a hard time carrying out what it claims is vital relief work in Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan is an incredibly difficult place to work in. It's a challenge, it always has been a challenge," said Gordon-Bates, who was head of an ICRC office in Gulbahar, north of Kabul, until earlier this year.

But he admitted that the problems have been compounded since the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States — which led to the withdrawal of all the ICRC international staff in Afghanistan on safety grounds — and the start of U.S. airstrikes.

Of all the aid agencies working in Afghanistan, the Swiss-based ICRC had the best contacts with both sides in the conflict and gained respect as a neutral body.

In their role as enforcers of the Geneva Conventions governing treatment of prisoners of war, Gordon-Bates and his staff visited prisoners to check on their conditions and to take messages to their families. They had the full approval of the Taliban and its enemy, the northern alliance. They also arranged meetings between enemy commanders.

But it was a job that could only be done by non-Afghans, and so it has stopped since international staff withdrew in mid-September.

"It was extremely rewarding because there we could see that the ICRC was a neutral intermediary, trusted both by the Taliban and the northern alliance," said Gordon-Bates.

"Most of us are feeling a bit sad and dispossessed about what happened. We had established a working relationship. There was a mutual respect."

Traditionally the ICRC has been the most persistent and the most respected humanitarian organization in countries at war, staying put when the United Nations pulls out and getting access where others could not. As a result, its staff face some of the greatest dangers.

In April six Red Cross workers were hacked to death in eastern Congo, recalling for many workers the 1996 murder of six Red Cross nurses shot to death in their beds in Chechnya. ICRC staff members have been the targets of kidnappings in a number of countries, including Georgia, Russia, Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia.

Since the withdrawal of all foreign workers from the country in September, about 1,000 Afghan ICRC staffers have continued to work. But it has been difficult to maintain contact with them, and they still face many dangers and obstacles in doing their work.

After U.S. planes first hit one of the buildings in the Kabul aid compound on Oct. 16, the ICRC responded by "informing the U.S. authorities once again of the location of its facilities."

Gordon-Bates said he did not at first believe Friday's news that the compound — in which every building had a huge flag with a red cross on its roof — had been targeted again, and said the ICRC had so far received no explanation from the Pentagon.

The U.S. Defense Department admitted to reporters that the compound had been deliberately targeted and blamed "human error" for the mistake. It added that one of the bombs had missed its target and landed in a residential area of Kabul.

Gordon-Bates said the ICRC "deplored" the bombings but its biggest concern now was to ensure that there was no third mistake.

"Maybe flags on the roof and notifying them of our position is not enough. We will probably have to adapt," he said.