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Aid workers warned over abductions

Swiss ICRC delegate Julien Grosclaude was detained by Palestinian militants on Tuesday Keystone

Swiss aid officials have been advised not to venture into the West Bank and Gaza Strip following a spate of kidnappings by Palestinian militants on Tuesday.

This content was published on March 15, 2006 - 12:46

A Swiss delegate of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was among those abducted but he was later released unharmed.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) said on Wednesday that all foreign aid staff had been warned by the United Nations to stay out of the Palestinian territories. The security measure is expected to remain in place for the next few days.

An Israeli raid on a Jericho prison on Tuesday sparked unrest that saw at least ten aid workers and journalists taken hostage and Western interests attacked.

Fritz Froehlich, deputy head of the SDC's operations in Gaza and the West Bank, said the Palestinian authorities had called a general strike leading to the closure of government offices and shops in protest at the raid.

But he stressed that thousands of local staff employed by the UN and international aid organisations were working as normal.

"They are able to operate but the movement of international staff has been curtailed following the kidnappings by vigilante groups," Froehlich told swissinfo.

Kidnapping

He said the international aid community was convening a meeting on Wednesday to decide how best to address the issue of abductions of humanitarian workers.

He pointed out that the Palestinian Authority was "fully cooperating" to achieve the release of hostages but added that no one had control over the militant groups responsible.

"We hope we will be able to come up with a common appeal urging militant groups not to target humanitarian workers," said Froehlich, speaking from the SDC's offices in East Jerusalem.

"It has to be understood by the population, the Palestinian Authority and extremist groups that it will endanger humanitarian assistance programmes if it continues."

The Swiss foreign ministry said on Wednesday that it had closed its office in Ramallah as a security precaution, but stressed that representatives could still be reached by phone.

Security measures

The Swiss-run ICRC said on Wednesday that it was taking strict security measures in response to the current situation.

The organisation added that it would remain present in the occupied Palestinian territories and was committed to pursuing its humanitarian action.

"We do not intend to close down our operations or withdraw," ICRC spokeswoman Dorothea Krimitsas told swissinfo. "We are absolutely committed to pursuing our work."

Staff have been asked to stay at home or in their offices while the current situation is being assessed, but according to Krimitsas, there are still some delegates working out in the field.

The ICRC said it had reminded the Israeli authorities during the military operations in Jericho of their obligations under international humanitarian law. It said it expected to be given access to all detainees seized by Israeli forces during Tuesday's operations.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont

In brief

An Israeli raid on a West Bank prison after British and US monitors pulled out led to a spate of kidnappings in the Palestinian territories on Tuesday.

The Swiss foreign ministry condemned both the raid and the abductions. It urged all parties to end the violence and refrain from any action that contravenes international humanitarian law.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for urgent steps to restore calm and demanded full respect for the safety of international personnel on the ground.

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Key facts

The Swiss Cooperation Office Gaza and West Bank was established in June 1994.
It employs ten staff and has a budget this year of SFr25 million ($19 million).
The agency has numerous partners in the region. It works with Palestinian NGOs active in human rights, environmental protection and social development.
About half its budget is allocated to international organisations such as the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and the ICRC.

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