UN scales back in dangerous southern Afghanistan

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — The United Nations scaled back its operations in the troubled southern city of Kandahar on Monday, relocating several foreign employees to Kabul and telling more than 200 Afghan U.N. workers to stay home amid rising violence.

The announcement came hours after three bombings — one targeting a local police official — shook the city. The rash of attacks came ahead of a joint Afghan-NATO operation to try to wrest control of the area from Taliban militants. The strategy is to flood in troops, rout the militants and rush in new governance, development projects and security to win the loyalty of Kandahar's half-million residents.

Dan McNorton, a U.N. spokesman in the capital of Kabul, insisted the world body was not pulling out of Kandahar and remained committed to continuing its aid and humanitarian work. He declined to say how many international U.N. employees were still working in Kandahar, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban.

"Due to the current security situation in Kandahar, we have temporarily relocated several of our non-Afghan staff to Kabul," McNorton said. "Our Afghan colleagues have been instructed to remain at home for the time being."

"We will continue to monitor the security situation in Kandahar and hope to be able to get back to work as soon as possible," he added.

A senior Western official familiar with U.N. operations said 16 U.N. workers in Kandahar were moved to a more heavily secured compound Sunday night and then traveled on to Kabul and perhaps other destinations. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Two of the bombs exploded about 30 feet (10 meters) apart as a convoy of Deputy Provincial Police Chief Fazel Ahmad Sherzad passed by.

"They were targeting the car I normally use, but luckily I was not in it at the time," Sherzad said.

A roadside bomb exploded first, then a minute later, a motorbike laden with explosives was detonated. The blasts killed two civilians and injured one policeman and one civilian, the Interior Ministry said. About two hours later, a third blast struck in the north of the city, injuring another Afghan policeman.

Since April 12, at least 20 civilians, including eight children, have been killed in Kandahar, according to a count by The Associated Press. Local officials, aid workers and contractors for U.S. development projects have been targeted by Taliban fighters trying to disrupt the upcoming military operation, expected to accelerate this summer.

"The security in this city is deteriorating," said Enayutullah Khan, 43, a rickshaw driver. "People leave their homes only to find food for their children. Otherwise we don't leave the house."

Rangina Hamidi, who runs a Kandahar-based handicrafts business that employs about 200 women, said many of her workers had been too frightened to come to work in recent days.

"It's very scary. We don't know what is happening," said Hamidi, whose employees sew embroidered clothing, tablecloths and shawls.

The U.N. has been on the defensive in Afghanistan since October, when three suicide attackers stormed a Kabul guest house where dozens of staffers lived. Five U.N. employees and three Afghan citizens were killed in a two-hour siege. After the attack, the U.N. sent about 600 of its 1,100 foreign staffers either out of the country or relocated them to safer quarters. Many eventually were recalled to Kabul; others chose not to renew their contracts or terminated their tours in Afghanistan early.

In Kabul, security forces were setting up extra roadblocks and checkpoints ahead of Wednesday's celebration to mark the mujahedeen victory over the Soviets in the 1980s war.

Violence has marred the celebration in recent years. In April 2008, insurgents tried to assassinate President Hamid Karzai during the celebration. Three people were killed and eight others were wounded when militants fired rockets and automatic rifles at Karzai and other dignitaries during a military parade. Two lawmakers were hit by bullets.

The capital has been abuzz with rumors of Taliban plans to attack targets in the city, especially those associated with international organizations. Last week, the Afghan intelligence service announced the arrest of nine militants planning suicide attacks in Kabul.

Five would-be suicide bombers were arrested April 8 at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Kabul along with explosives-laden vests, police said.

Also Monday, a NATO airstrike killed the Taliban "shadow governor" of Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan. Mullah Yar Mohammed, also known as Noor Mohammed, was killed as he was traveling in a vehicle with three advisers, provincial spokesman Mabobullah Sayedi said. Mohammed was named as the Taliban's top figure in Kunduz after his predecessor was arrested in Pakistan in February.

In Kunduz city, authorities had yet to finish an investigation into cases of scores of Afghan schoolgirls who fell ill after reporting a strange odor in their classrooms. Police have increased security around girls' schools, said Fatama Aziz, a Kunduz lawmaker.

Aziz and Abdul Moqum Halimi, the provincial education director, said classrooms were full Monday but some parents said they were keeping their children home.

"I want my three daughters to be educated, I want them to attend their school. But at the same time I want the government to provide good security," said Rahela, who like many Afghans has only one name. One daughter fell ill last week and was still hospitalized, and Rahela was keeping the other two at home.

The Taliban has denied any involvement in the illnesses, which could also be the result of accidental poisonings — such as from fertilizers — or mass hysteria.

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Riechmann reported from Kabul. Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon in Islamabad and Mirwais Khan and Heidi Vogt in Kabul contributed to this report.

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