Charities say war has crept up to 'safer' north

Aid agencies in Afghanistan have launched urgent reviews of their security in the wake of the killings of 10 medical workers in the north of the country.

Many had until now assumed that the north of Afghanistan was a comparatively safe area to work in. Aid workers spoke yesterday of their worries that the attack signalled increased hostility towards foreign charities and relief agencies.

"It's very insecure now," said an aid worker based in Afghanistan for a large international charity. "The days when we could place the conflict in the south and not the rest of the country have gone."

Jennifer Rowell, who works for Care International in Afghanistan, agreed that the conflict has spread to the northern regions. "Now there are districts within Kabul that we can't get to. There is an encroachment of the conflict into the north and central regions that were quite stable for a number of years. I've witnessed this happening; the rate has been noticeable over the last year."

Aid workers repeatedly voiced their fears that their agencies are finding it harder than ever to show their independence from the foreign armed forces in the country, a crucial step in bringing the local population on board and ensuring their security.

"It's much harder for aid workers ... to demonstrate that they're truly independent," said one worker. Ms Rowell added: "Religious activists and social activists of all kinds are targeting aid workers because of the difficult times we're working in at present. There's no question that it's becoming harder to demonstrate our independence and neutrality. It's a turning point in the international military efforts in the country, so the presence of NGOs has been pulled into the broader political process.

"Life for NGOs is getting more complicated. The presence of NGOs is getting politicised; this is a change. We're entering a very tenuous political and military time in which anything is possible."

Shaun Bickley, a security consultant and author of a war zone handbook for NGO staff, stressed the need for aid agencies to differentiate themselves from military humanitarian operations.

"Aid agencies need to work separately," he said. "That means not giving mixed messages by becoming too closely involved in political and military causes. The battlefield is, after all, an environment so closely spaced together that it is difficult to get that distance."