Fear of Afghan election attacks sees foreigners leave

18th August 2009, Comments 0 comments

Following the recent surge in attacks, expats who are staying behind have been told to stay within the compound and not move around unless necessary.

Kabul – Hundreds of foreigners are leaving Afghanistan ahead of Thursday's election amid fears of insurgent attacks, as those staying behind are being warned to spend the week in their homes or office compounds.

Insurgents waging a war against the government have threatened to attack polling stations on Thursday, when Afghans are set to choose a president for only the second time in their country's history.

One international security firm has told foreign clients to have body armour and passports with them at all times.

From Tuesday to Sunday, four days after the poll, "only essential movement is advised," the firm said in an advisory seen by AFP.

"It is expected that AGE ("anti-government elements," including Taliban) will attempt to disrupt the election process before, after and on" 20 August, it said.

"AGE actions can range from intimidation in the form of night letters to suicide (car bomb) attacks," it said.

The warning comes as many foreigners have left Afghanistan because of security fears, according to sources at embassies, international aid agencies and non-governmental organisations.

In contrast, the US embassy is operating as normal with 450 American staff, said spokesman Kirk Wolcott.

Kabul was battered by attacks Tuesday as a bomb killed five people and wounded around 30 on the busy Jalalabad road in Kabul.

Earlier, the Taliban fired volleys of rockets into the capital and the eastern city Jalalabad, wounding at least 10 people, mostly women and children.

Afghan and international security officials said two to three rockets were fired into Kabul, including one that hit the edge of the presidential compound.

In the southern, the Taliban's main powerbase, a suicide bomber walked up to an Afghan military checkpoint and blew himself up killing three soldiers and two civilians in Uruzgan province on Tuesday, police said.

"All mujahideen must conduct their plans against the enemy, based on the programme previously assigned to them, to make this plot by the enemies of Islam and the country fail," the Taliban said in a statement emailed to AFP.

Thousands of US and NATO troops pushed into militant strongholds months before polling day but at least eight districts remain outside state control and up to 12 percent of polling centres may not open, authorities said.

Incumbent Hamid Karzai has been tipped to hold on to power but an energetic campaign by former finance minister Abdullah Abdullah has boosted the chance of a run-off amid fears that charges of irregularities may lead to protests.

The NATO-led force announced it would suspend all offensive operations and now focus on protecting the civilian population on election day.

A massive suicide attack outside NATO headquarters near the US embassy in Kabul on Saturday killed seven Afghans and hurt almost 100 others, and was a defiant show of strength by the Taliban.

It vindicated violence fears and prompted some embassies to order expat staff to remain on-site until further notice.

"Everyone has been told to stay in the compound, moving out only as necessary," said an Australian diplomat.

No organisation or government appeared to have ordered an evacuation or raised security alerts beyond general recommendations.

Evacuation orders would set a political tripwire for the election, which is being promoted by international supporters of the Afghan government as a major step towards democracy for the war-ravaged nation.

Nevertheless, almost 200 Germans working on a variety of projects across Afghanistan will leave before voting day, a source at the German Development Corporation said.

"Officially, we have a choice of staying or leaving, but they have given us a good incentive to leave by offering us training, so we are all leaving at the same time and doing the training together," the source said on condition of anonymity.

United Nations staff not directly involved in the election have been advised to leave, ostensibly so their resources, such as cars and satellite phones, can be deployed in the election effort, said a UN official who did not want to be identified.

"It depends on what you are doing -- if you are working on the election, stay. If not, then take leave and hand your car to someone who can use it," he said.

Current expatriate staffing levels were down by 30-40 percent, with 600-700 in the country, another UN official said, also on condition of anonymity, adding that figure includes staff who had arrived especially for the elections.

Many NGOs have given staff the option of taking paid leave abroad, or return to Kabul from other parts of the country and remain indoors.

The French embassy reported a rush of visa applications as expatriates chose to take up leave options, a spokesman said.

Lex Kassenberg, country director with Care International, said: "We made it optional for staff to take their R-and-R during election time. For others there's a strong recommendation not to travel and to stay inside the compounds on 19, 20 and 21 August."

Expatriate staff numbers had fallen to nine from 15 as a result, he said.

A British woman, who wanted to be identified only as Laura, said her NGO offered expat staff an extra week's leave that eight of 12 have taken.

"It's not an evacuation, everyone has taken strategic leave," she said, with those remaining "basically locked down for a week".

"No one is expecting things to go horribly wrong over the election. But perhaps when results start coming out is when you might expect some escalated activity," she said.

About 17 million people have registered to vote. Despite fears low turnout could undermine the election's credibility, many are eager to take part.

"If people die then I might die, but I'll still vote knowing the risks," said Amina, a 35-year-old widow in the southern city of Kandahar.

Progress has been made since the collapse of the five-year Taliban regime, but many people are frustrated. Despite billions of dollars of Western aid, most lack electricity, roads are bad, jobs are scarce and corruption rife.

AFP / Expatica

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