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UN refugee chief: Security worse in Afghanistan, foreign staff can't access half of country

GENEVA (AP) — Security in Afghanistan has deteriorated in recent months to the extent that foreign staff of the U.N.'s refugee agency are unable to travel to half of the country, its top official said Wednesday.

The agency has to rely on local staff or Afghan partner organizations to reach tens of thousands of displaced people and returning refugees it is trying to aid, said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.

"There was a worsening security situation in the recent past," he told reporters in Geneva. "Access of our international staff to the territory is now limited to about 50 percent."

Last month the United Nations announced it had relocated several foreign employees from the southern city of Kandahar to Kabul and told more than 200 Afghan workers to stay home after security threats.

Guterres said aid workers have become targets for violence in part because the distinction between the foreign military and humanitarian groups has been blurred.

Military 'hearts and minds' campaigns intended to win the support of the local population by building bridges and digging wells could easily be confused with similar work carried out by aid groups, making it difficult for villagers to draw the line between foreign soldiers and humanitarian workers, he said.

Guterres said the agency has "completely reshaped" its operations in Afghanistan in response to growing threats, including by moving administrative staff to its regional office in Bangkok and investing in security hardware.

But he added that more barbed wire, blast walls and armed guards alone wouldn't be effective unless the local population could be convinced that agencies such as UNHCR are independent from U.S.-led international military presence in Afghanistan.

Separately, Guterres said he has held talks with United States officials about the reform of U.S. migration laws, which he hoped could help improve the "general environment" for immigrants. Guterres declined to comment specifically about Arizona's new immigration law that would make it a state crime to be in the U.S. illegally, saying it was not part of the agency's refugee mandate.