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UN to pull its staff out of Afghanistan

Insurgent attacks see 600 workers evacuated – and they may never come back

The United Nations is to evacuate hundreds of its foreign staff from Afghanistan because of spiralling violence, warning that it may permanently withdraw from the country unless the security situation improves. In a move which will add to the sense of foreboding caused by insurgent attacks and political crisis, the organisation said that 600 of its 1,100 international employees would be moved abroad or to safer internal locations.

Some of the staff are expected to operate from Dubai, leading to concern from aid agencies that humanitarian projects will suffer. The decision comes at a time when Barack Obama is considering sending up to 40,000 more troops to a war rapidly becoming unpopular in the US and Europe. Questions are being asked about why Western troops should fight and die to prop up the government of Hamid Karzai, which has been internationally labelled corrupt.

Kai Eide, who heads the UN mission in Afghanistan, said the move was temporary. But he warned: "The perception that we will stay in this country no matter what is incorrect. There is a belief among many that the international community presence will continue whatever happens, because of the strategic importance of Afghanistan. I would like to emphasise that is not true. The debate over the last few weeks has demonstrated that there are more question marks with regard to the strength of the international commitment to Afghanistan. We can't afford any longer a situation where warlords and power-brokers play their own games."

More of the UN staff who remain in Afghanistan are likely to be brought into Kabul. The practice of staying in 93 different guesthouses in the Afghan capital is also likely to change. Staff will probably be housed centrally behind high walls protected by armed guards.

Five UN employees died in a gun attack on a Kabul guesthouse at the end of last month. The attack was the biggest on the UN in its 50-year history in Afghanistan, prompting the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, to request an extra $75m for emergency security measures. However, officials believe that will not be enough to protect all the staff, hence the withdrawal.

Another reason for the evacuation is believed to be unease about the reliance on Afghan security forces; this was reinforced after an Afghan policeman shot dead five British soldiers at Nad-e-Ali in Helmand on Wednesday.

Mr Ban has been critical of the fact that Afghan police and soldiers took more than an hour to appear on the scene of the guest-house attack. He told the UN General Assembly that two security guards had to hold off the attackers with handguns as they waited for help.

Mr Eide said that a "natural place" for the relocation of UN staff would be Dubai. The city has regular flight links with Kabul and lies inside the Afghanistan "mission area". He added: "We are simply doing what we have to do following the tragic events of last week to look after our workers in a difficult moment while ensuring that our operations in Afghanistan can continue."