Kabul- The International Committee of the Red Cross will “drastically” reduce operations in war-torn Afghanistan after seven of its employees were killed in attacks this year, the aid group said on Monday.
The announcement underlines the deteriorating security for aid groups in Afghanistan, where the ICRC has been operating for more than 30 years and has been running its fourth biggest humanitarian program.
“Exposure to risk has become our greatest challenge and concern,” Monica Zanarelli, head of the ICRC in Afghanistan, told a news conference in the capital, Kabul.
“We have no choice but to drastically reduce our presence in Afghanistan,” she said, adding that the decision would particularly affect operations in the north, where facilities in Kunduz, Faryab, and Balkh provinces would be closed or downsized.
Red Cross officials said the assessments are ongoing and could not say how many of its 1,800 staff would be affected.
The humanitarian group will close its facilities in the northern city of Maimana, the capital of Faryab province, and in Kunduz province, also in the north and a hotbed of Taliban activity.
Operations in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif will be scaled back.
The group has suffered a series of deadly attacks in northern Afghanistan, where Taliban and ISIS group militants have intensified their assaults on police and troops.
In February six ICRC employees were killed when their convoy came under insurgent attack in the northern province of Jowzjan.
Two of their colleagues were abducted in a separate incident and only released by their captors last month.
No group claimed responsibility for the abduction or killings, but Jowzjan police have blamed local ISIS jihadists who are making inroads in the country.
In the most recent attack, a Spanish physiotherapist working for the ICRC in northern Afghanistan last month was shot and killed by a wheelchair-bound patient.
Lorena Enebral Perez, 38, was shot inside the aid group’s rehabilitation center in Mazar-i-Sharif, where she treated disabled children, women and men including amputees.
Two people were arrested over the deadly attack, including the 21-year-old shooter whom police said was a “regular patient”.
Last December a Spanish Red Cross employee was abducted when workers from the charity were traveling between Mazar-i-Sharif and neighboring Kunduz. He was released several weeks later.
The ICRC has around 1,800 staff including 120 international aid workers in Afghanistan — helping wounded and disabled people, supporting hospitals, making prison visits and assisting prisoners to maintain contact with their families.
In many areas such as the north, they are the only international organization providing such services.
“We understand the consequences to stop our activities in the north but we have no choice,” Zanarelli added.
She said the organization was not leaving Afghanistan but to prevent more losses the “necessity of reviewing our presence is strongly requested”.
The spreading conflict has combined with an increase in criminality, making for more “blurred lines” between the various armed groups which complicate efforts to safely provide aid, Zanarelli said.
“I would say there are more gray areas than there were in the past, and this is certainly what is affecting our capacity to assess our security,” she said.
According to US military estimates, the government controls no more than 60 percent of the country, with the rest either controlled or contested by the Taliban and other insurgent groups.