One of Switzerland’s most iconic humanitarian aid organisations suffered its worst attack in 20 years, bringing a temporary halt to its aid operations in Afghanistan.
The Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told swissinfo.ch on Thursday that it is has suspended its Afghan operations after the killing of six of its employees and the disappearance of two others. The massacre recalls the growing threats and dangers facing humanitarians in longer and fragmented wars.
The six ICRC Afghan employees that were killed were part of a convoy transporting relief supplies to areas affected by heavy snow and avalanches in the north of the country. The convoy of ICRC trucks had three drivers and five field officers.
The governor of Afghanistan’s Jowzjan province said suspected Islamic State gunmen carried out Wednesday’s attack in Afghanistan, which is the ICRC's fourth largest humanitarian programme in the world. Numerous armed groups are present in northern Afghanistan.
The ICRC said it did not know who was responsible for the attack. "As we speak, our operations are suspended, of course, because we need to understand what exactly happened before we can, hopefully, resume our operations," the ICRC’s operations director, Dominik Stillhart, told reporters in Geneva.
In a statement on Wednesday evening, Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter condemned the violence and expressed condolences to the families of the victims, the ICRC and the Afghan authorities. He called on the attackers to release the two other ICRC staff taken in the ambush.
A Swiss foreign ministry statement called on "all parties in armed conflict to respect the need to protect humanitarian actors deployed throughout the world, whose work aims to bring relief to people in need. These humanitarian actors are, unfortunately, increasingly subject to attacks."
The humanitarian organisation, founded in Geneva in 1863 to protect war victims, has operated in Afghanistan for more than 30 years.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms what appears to be a deliberate attack on our staff. This is a huge tragedy. We’re in shock,” said ICRC president Peter Maurer.
The organisation’s director-general, Yves Daccord, described the incident as “the worst attack against us since 20 years”, but said it remains unknown who was responsible. The head of the ICRC delegation in Afghanistan, Monica Zanarelli, said the full impact of the attack remains unclear.
"We want to collect ourselves as a team and support each other in processing this incomprehensible act and finding our two unaccounted for colleagues,” she said. However, the dangers facing humanitarians are not new.
In an interview with swissinfo.ch in 2014, Daccord highlighted the problem of helping people amid conflicts that increasingly are between armed groups, not just nations. That, he said, made it “increasingly rare” for humanitarian workers to be able to establish trust with partners in the field.