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Analysis - Under fire, aid workers face life as a soft target

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By Peter Apps

LONDON, June 19 (Reuters) - Caught in the crossfire, executed in cold blood or simply hounded out of violent regions, aid workers seem more under fire than ever before and their killers are rarely, if ever, brought to justice.

By any standards, June has been a bloody month for the aid community. In Sri Lanka, two Red Cross local staff were kidnapped at the capital's high security railway station before being shot dead in the highlands.

Two Lebanese Red Cross workers were killed as troops and militants battled inside a refugee camp, while two Palestinian U.N. workers were killed during fighting in the Gaza Strip.

Aid agencies cut back operations in the Central African Republic after a foreign worker with Medicins Sans Frontieres was shot dead.

And after a string of attacks and the rape of a staff member from another organisation, Oxfam pulled out of Darfur's largest refugee camp despite warning that people there still desperately needed their help.

"Put simply, good people doing good deeds no longer provides the protection it used to," Bob Macpherson, head of security for Care International, told Reuters. "Now, good people doing good things are seen as fairly soft targets."

In 2006, 85 aid workers -- almost all of them local staff -- were killed, the highest since 2003 when numbers were swollen by a bomb attack on the United Nations compound in Baghdad that killed 22 people.

Most aid agencies have now pulled out of Iraq altogether or only operate there with local staff. Some see other areas including parts of Somalia, Afghanistan and Sudan heading the same way.

MOST DANGEROUS EVER

For the world's largest aid operation in Sudan's volatile Darfur region attacks, hijackings, kidnappings and thefts have become dangerously commonplace. Aid workers blame increasingly fragmented rebel groups and militias, and say the government is doing far too little to bring culprits to justice.

"It is certainly the most dangerous it has been," said Oxfam spokesman Alun McDonald from the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

"Every place we work has had a security incident in the last three months. If it was to get much worse, we would certainly have to consider if we can stay at all."

Aid workers and security experts offer a range of differing reasons for the mounting death toll. Certainly, the number of aid workers in the field is increasing but that alone does not seem the full explanation.

Security experts say the rebuilding efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan means aid groups are no longer seen as a wholly neutral, and this has had a knock-on effect globally.

The shift many aid agencies have made beyond providing simple relief supplies into advocacy and campaigning has put them on a collision course with some governments and rebel groups, making them an obvious target.

Risks are often highest in failed states or regions where central authority has almost completely broken down and disparate groups simply want the material resources aid agencies offer and are willing to kill for them.

Aid groups working in areas of conflict also risk being labelled as biased in one direction or other, and simply working in rebel areas can be enough to have them labelled sympathisers.

"CRISIS IS NOW"

It is the local staff that make up the vast majority of any aid mission and bear the brunt of any violence.

Left behind when aid groups withdraw, living in the community rather than in compounds and lacking the support of foreign embassies, their deaths attract much less attention than those of their international counterparts.

Justice is rare. Almost a year after the massacre of 17 local aid staff in northeastern Sri Lanka -- killings blamed on the military by Nordic ceasefire monitors -- foreign observers say investigations are stalled. Elsewhere, there may simply not be the resources to solve crimes.

"The crisis is now," said Philip Halton, managing director of a not-for-profit security consultancy for aid agencies. "The mere fact of being humanitarian is not enough any more. Unless they can adapt to that I don't think we can come through this very easily."

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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