UN shuts mission in Afghanistan's Kandahar

UN has temporarily withdrawn foreign staff and shut its mission in Kandahar, the Afghan city where security has deteriorated ahead of a major military offensive.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan // The United Nations said today it had temporarily withdrawn foreign staff and shut its mission in Kandahar, the Afghan city where security has deteriorated ahead of a major military offensive. UN spokeswoman Susan Manuel said some foreign staff in the Kandahar office had been moved to the capital Kabul for their safety, and Afghan staff there had been told to stay home. She would not say how many international staff had been withdrawn and how many had stayed behind or whether a specific threat was behind the decision.

"The security situation has gotten to the point where we needed to withdraw them yesterday," she said. "We hope people can go back and keep doing what they have been doing. We see it as a very temporary measure." Nato forces are planning the biggest military offensive of the nearly nine-year-old war in coming months in and around Kandahar, the biggest city in the south and heartland of the Taliban movement.

Under the plans, expected to unfold beginning in June, about 8,000 US and Canadian troops will secure rural areas around the city while a newly-deployed brigade of 3,500 US troops escorts 6,700 Afghan police into urban areas. In all, the offensive will involve some 23,000 Nato ground troops and Afghan police. The offensive is the cornerstone of a "surge" strategy by US President Barack Obama, employing the bulk of the 30,000 extra troops he is dispatching to Afghanistan this year to turn the tide against a mounting Taliban insurgency.

Nato commanders have been playing down the military aspect of the Kandahar operation, insisting in public that the emphasis will be on political efforts, but it will still be the biggest offensive of the war by far, and the Taliban have vowed to fight. The last few weeks have seen a surge in attacks and assassinations in the city of about 500,000 people. Bomb strikes have occurred almost daily, insurgents have carried out several major suicide bombings and raids over the past few weeks, and a deputy mayor was gunned down last week.

Kandahar's provincial council chief, President Hamid Karzai's half-brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, said the United Nations was overreacting by withdrawing its staff. "We strongly condemn this act by the UN to pull out of Kandahar. This is an irrational decision without consulting with local authorities," he told a news conference. "The situation is not as bad as the UN views it," he said. "They aren't here for a party. They know they are in war zone. This move will leave a bad impression on citizens of Kandahar."

The United Nations mission in Kandahar serves as a regional hub for the southern part of the country, including neighbouring Helmand province, where there are no international UN staff. The mission includes UN agencies that carry out a broad range of humanitarian work. The United Nations withdrew hundreds of its international staff from Afghanistan last year after five foreign workers were killed in an attack on a guesthouse where they lived in Kabul. Most of those have returned to more secure accommodation.

* Reuters