Red Cross: Afghan armed groups grow, threaten aid

HEIDI VOGT - Associated Press
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In this photograph made on Monday, Dec. 13, 2010, shows Taliban fighters man a checkpoint in an undisclosed location in Nangarhar province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan. A Taliban commander on the ground said that they were checking the traffic looking for people working for the Afghan government, for non-governmental organizations or who work at the US military bases. (AP Photo)

The number of different armed groups is growing across Afghanistan, preventing even the Red Cross from accessing much of the country to deliver lifesaving care, an official with the aid organization said Wednesday.

The Red Cross has long been able to operate in even the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan because of a commitment to treat all comers and because of its ability to negotiate access with the Taliban or other insurgent groups.

But a rise of small armed bands across the country has made such negotiations more difficult, said Reto Stocker, Afghanistan head for the International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC.

Often they don't know who to talk with to ensure the safety of their workers and the shifting security situation makes it too dangerous to risk going into many areas, he said.

"In a growing number in areas of the country, we are entering a new, rather murky period. We see that the proliferation of armed groups threatens the ability of humanitarian organizations to access those in need," Stocker told reporters in the capital, Kabul.

In the past, Red Cross workers were able to get out to areas where there had been clashes or violent incidents within days. Now, sometimes it takes weeks or months, he said.

"Access for the ICRC has, over the last 30 years never been as poor and difficult in Afghanistan," Stocker said.

A number of humanitarian workers have been killed in attacks this year, including 10 members of a medical team that were ambushed in northern Afghanistan in August. The team included six Americans, two Afghans, one German and a Briton.

In the south, meanwhile, a NATO service member was killed by a bombing early Wednesday, the military alliance said in a statement. No further details were released.

More than 670 U.S. and other international troops have died in Afghanistan so far this year.

NATO forces have poured troops into the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand and have been making progress in their battle against the Taliban. But fighting has continued there and in the eastern provinces where the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based Taliban faction closely tied to al-Qaida, holds sway.