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International aid workers become targets

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LONDON

Caught in the crossfire, executed in cold blood or simply hounded out of violent regions, aid workers seem more under fire than ever before and their killers are rarely, if ever, brought to justice.

By any standard, June has been a particularly bloody month for the aid community. In Sri Lanka, two Red Cross local staff members were kidnapped at the capital's high-security railway station before being fatally shot in the highlands.

Two Lebanese Red Cross workers were killed as troops and militants battled inside a refugee camp, and two Palestinian U.N. workers were killed during fighting in the Gaza Strip.

Aid agencies cut back operations in the Central African Republic after a foreign worker with the Paris-based medical-aid group Medicins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, was fatally shot.

And after a string of attacks and the rape of a staff member, Oxfam, the global development and poverty-relief group, pulled out of the largest refugee camp in the Darfur region of Sudan despite acknowledging that people there still desperately needed the agency's help.

"Put simply, 'Good people doing good deeds' no longer provides the protection it used to," said Bob MacPherson, head of security for CARE International. "Now, good people doing good things are seen as fairly soft targets."

In 2006, 85 aid workers — almost all of them local staff employed by international groups — were killed, the most since 2003, when numbers were swollen by a bomb attack on the United Nations' compound in Baghdad that killed 22 persons.

Most aid agencies have pulled out of Iraq or only operate there with local staff. Some see other problem areas — including parts of Somalia, Afghanistan and Sudan — heading the same way.

For the world's largest joint aid operation in Darfur, attacks, hijackings, kidnappings and theft have become dangerously commonplace. Aid workers blame increasingly fragmented rebel groups and militias and say the government is doing far too little to bring culprits to justice.

"It is certainly the most dangerous it has been," said Oxfam spokesman Alun McDonald from the Sudan's capital, Khartoum.

"Every place we work has had a security incident in the last three months. If it were to get much worse, we would certainly have to consider if we can stay at all," he said.

Aid workers and security experts offer a range of reasons for the mounting death toll. Certainly, the number of aid workers in the field is increasing, but some say that does not fully explain the dangers.

Security specialists say the rebuilding efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan mean that aid groups are no longer seen as a wholly neutral — a shift in perceptions with consequences around the globe.

Many aid agencies have made the jump from providing simple relief supplies to advocacy and campaigning. The change has put them on a collision course with some governments and rebel groups, making them an even more tempting target.

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