U.N. pulls foreign workers out of Afghan city of Kandahar

Reflecting the sharply deteriorating security situation in Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest metropolis, the United Nations on Monday pulled foreign staff out of the city and instructed hundreds of local employees not to come to work.

The move came on the same day as a series of explosions in the city killed two civilians.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces have set their sights on Kandahar with the aim of driving the Taliban out of the city this summer. Kandahar, home to about 1 million people, is the country’s southern hub and the insurgency’s spiritual home.

Most of the 30,000 arriving American troop reinforcements are being deployed in the south, and many will take part in the offensive, which is already in its early stages. Troops are trying to clear insurgents from districts surrounding the city, and have been hunting mid-level Taliban field commanders.

Taliban fighters, in turn, have ratcheted up attacks around the city, assassinating government officials and employees of international organizations. Last week, the city’s respected deputy mayor was gunned down as he prayed in a mosque.

U.N. officials described the pullout of foreign staffers as a temporary measure and said the move would be under ongoing review.

Officials refused to say how many international employees had been recalled to the relative safety of the capital, Kabul. The stay-at-home order to local staff affects more than 200 people, said spokesman Dan McNorton, adding that it wasn’t clear how long the provision would last.

“The safety of our staff is of paramount importance, but there is always a balance to be struck between working to ensure their safety and delivering our assistance programs,” McNorton said.

Many foreign contractors and aid organizations have placed staffers working in Kandahar under tight restrictions because of the danger. But the U.N.'s move marks the most sweeping response to constant threats and near-daily bombings that are generally aimed at official installations yet most often wind up maiming and killing civilians.

The latest of those came Monday when two explosions went off in the city and a third in the surrounding environs, killing two civilians. The apparent target of one attack was a senior police official.

The United Nations has more than 1,100 foreign employees in Afghanistan. About half of them were moved for safety reasons after insurgents in October stormed a guesthouse in the capital, killing five U.N. employees and three Afghans.

President Hamid Karzai, on a state visit to India, condemned the Kandahar attacks. American officials have said the military campaign around the city will not move ahead without the Afghan leader’s approval.

Karzai has provided qualified public support for the military push in Kandahar, his home province. He has appealed to the West to do more to prevent civilian casualties in the course of the fighting, and has told tribal elders from Kandahar that Western troops will not move in unless the Afghan people want them there.