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UN grounds road missions in Afghanistan

UN refugee agency grounds road missions in Afghanistan after murder of staffer

The United Nations refugee agency today grounded road missions throughout Afghanistan, suspended activities in the eastern province of Ghazni and launched a review of its operations after the weekend murder of a staff member.

In New York, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the UN was already taking new steps to protect staff that would involve changes in the way the world body works in Afghanistan as it seeks to continue its operations there.

Mr. Annan reiterated his earlier denunciation of Sunday's shooting of Bettina Goislard, a 29-year-old French national working for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who was travelling in a clearly marked vehicle through the centre of Ghazni city when gunmen pulled up on a motorcycle and opened fire.

"It was a vicious attack on our colleague and to kill deliberately someone who was in Afghanistan to assist the people is something that no one can excuse and whatever the cause cannot be justified," he told reporters on arrival at UN Headquarters.

"Obviously we are taking measures to protect the staff and continue our operations as best as we can. We are not going to be reckless. It will entail some changes in the way we operate and I think we are beginning to take measures already."

UNHCR said it was also temporarily closing its voluntary repatriation centres in Peshawar and Quetta in neighbouring Pakistan until the security situation becomes clearer to ensure that returnees do not arrive at agency offices inside Afghanistan that may not be open.

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All staff members were confined to quarters and offices and road missions were grounded throughout Afghanistan as agency officials began reviewing its operations together with the Afghan government.

Ms. Goislard was the first UN staff member to be murdered in Afghanistan since UN operations resumed there after the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001. Since then, UNHCR has assisted in the return of 2.5 million refugees from Iran and Pakistan and some 500,000 internally displaced people.

"Whatever measures we take, we will stand by the majority of Afghans who are working with us to build peace in Afghanistan," Filippo Grandi, UNHCR's representative in Afghanistan, said. "But we certainly cannot allow our staff to be left at the mercy of those who are targeting us."

UNHCR has 782 people working in Afghanistan, of whom 87 are international staff. Sunday's shooting was the latest in a string of attacks on aid workers in Afghanistan. Other recent casualties include a Red Cross worker murdered in March and four people working for a Danish aid group who were killed in September.

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