KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - The United Nations has shut its mission in Kandahar and evacuated many foreign staff from the southern Afghan city, it said on Tuesday, a sign of worsening security ahead of a major U.S. offensive.
The U.N. pullout further alarmed residents as thousands of U.S. troops plan to launch the biggest operation of the nearly nine-year-old war in coming weeks.
U.N. spokeswoman Susan Manuel said all Afghan staff in Kandahar had been told to stay home, and some foreign staff had been moved to the capital Kabul for their safety a day earlier.
She would not say how many international staff had stayed behind, or whether a specific threat was behind the decision.
“The security situation has gotten to the point where we needed to withdraw them yesterday,” she said. “We hope people can go back and keep doing what they have been doing. We see it as a very temporary measure.”
Hours after the U.N. announcement, suspected Taliban infiltrators blew up tankers at fuel depot outside the city, near the air field that serves as the biggest NATO base in the province. Sher Mohammad Zazai, a senior Afghan army commander in the south, said 10 guards at the depot were wounded in the attack.
NATO spokesman Major Marcin Walczak said the blast was a few thousand metres (yards) from the base. No NATO troops were hurt.
NATO forces are planning what Washington calls a decisive campaign in coming months in Kandahar, the biggest city in the south and birthplace of the Taliban movement.
“When the U.N. is moving out of Kandahar, it shows that there is no security here,” said shopkeeper Mohammad Achakzai. “We are very worried, we don’t know what is coming upon us.”
The offensive is the cornerstone of a “surge” strategy by U.S. President Barack Obama, employing the bulk of the 30,000 extra troops he is dispatching to Afghanistan this year to turn the tide against a mounting Taliban insurgency.
Under the plans, expected to begin unfolding in June, about 8,000 U.S. and Canadian troops will try to secure rural areas around the city while a brigade of 3,500 U.S. troops escorts 6,700 Afghan police into urban areas. In all, the offensive will involve 23,000 NATO ground troops, Afghan soldiers and police.
NATO commanders have been playing down the military aspect of the Kandahar operation, insisting in public that the emphasis will be on political efforts, but it will still be the biggest offensive of the war by far, and the Taliban have vowed to fight.
Residents said the U.N. evacuation was further sign that security would continue to deteriorate.
The last few weeks have seen a surge in attacks and assassinations in the city of about 500,000 people. Bomb strikes have occurred almost daily, insurgents have carried out several major suicide bombings and raids over the past few weeks, and a deputy mayor was gunned down last week.
Kandahar’s provincial council chief, President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, said the United Nations was over-reacting by withdrawing its staff.
“We strongly condemn this act by the U.N. to pull out of Kandahar. This is an irrational decision without consulting with local authorities,” he told a news conference.
“The situation is not as bad as the U.N. views it,” he said. “This move will leave a bad impression on citizens of Kandahar.”
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi denied the group had threatened the United Nations: “They haven’t done anything good for the people, so their presence or withdrawal does not make any difference. But we haven’t warned or threatened them,” he said by phone from an undisclosed location.
“The U.N. knows the coming operation is not going to be healthy for them, so they are making excuses to leave Kandahar.”
The U.N. mission in Kandahar serves as a hub for the southern part of the country, including neighbouring Helmand province, where there are no foreign U.N. staff. The mission includes U.N. agencies that carry out a broad range of humanitarian work.
The United Nations withdrew hundreds of its international staff from Afghanistan last year after five foreign workers were killed in an attack on a guest house where they lived in Kabul. Many of those have returned to more secure accommodation.
Additional reporting by Peter Graff in KABUL; writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan