When aid workers are targets

After killings in Colombia, the Red Cross pulls out of combat zones.

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It was bad enough when paramilitary gunmen dragged a wounded guerrilla fighter from a Red Cross ambulance recently and fatally shot her.

But then in apparent retaliation, guerrilla fighters from the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces earlier this month stopped a Red Cross ambulance carrying a wounded paramilitary fighter and executed him. In response, the humanitarian organization's headquarters in Geneva shut down all help to wounded in combat, a first in their 15 years of work in this Andean nation.

The incidents involving the Red Cross are another example of how international humanitarian groups are increasingly targets themselves in the conflicts where they are involved. Last month, the United Nations pulled its aid workers out of refugee camps in West Timor, Indonesia, after three UN workers were killed. Since 1992, nearly 200 UN relief workers have been killed.

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The targeting of international groups is increasingly seen as a way to attract global media attention to local causes. Once perceived as neutral do-gooders, the workers are sometimes attacked because they are seen as supporting one side.

In Colombia, the latest attacks are also seen as a sad example of how the civil war here continues to surpass uncrossed boundaries of inhumanity and horror.

"International humanitarian workers all know that there are no guarantees for working in Colombia anymore," says Susan Lee, a researcher with the London office of Amnesty International who works frequently in Colombia. The attacks on the wounded, she says, show "the wider pattern of worsening conflict which increasingly affects civilians and the workers trying to help them."

Colombian Interior Minister Humberto de la Calle called the ambulance tit-for-tat "a message of savagery sent to the rest of the world," but it was hardly the first such message from the country's 40-year-old conflict. Combatants have kidnapped and killed journalists and Indian rights activists. This year a collar bomb that had been placed on a woman farmer exploded as a bomb squad tried to deactivate the device, killing both her and two of the squad members.

This is not the first time the International Red Cross has suspended its operations in a war zone - or in Colombia.

Humanitarian work was halted in both Burundi and Chechnya in 1996, which Darcy Christen, spokesman for the International Red Cross in Geneva, says was "one of our worst years." The measures were taken after three international delegates in Burundi and six in Chechnya were killed.

In January of this year, the 15 Red Cross offices in Colombia also suspended activities after more than 300 war refugees stormed the headquarters in Bogot&aactue;. The siege, designed to pressure the government into meeting demands for assistance, caused a month-an-a-half suspension of activities. The organization in April decided to move offices to a compound-like center where security measures were stepped up.

"We had to put our foot down and say to all the combatants in Colombia, 'Listen guys, we're serious here,' " says Mr. Christen. "This is a clear violation of the Geneva Convention."

Georges Comninos, a Swiss lawyer who heads up Red Cross operations in Colombia, says that despite his 14 years with the group in hot spots like Lebanon, Sudan, and Uganda, the ambulance killings still left him alarmed. Other human rights and humanitarian groups also feel the strain of Colombia's protracted conflict.

In July, a splinter guerrilla group kidnapped Ignacio de Torquemada, a French volunteer with Doctors Without Borders (DWB). In 1998, Doctor Alberto Abadia, coordinator for the Nobel Peace Prize-winning group, was killed in the province of Cordoba.

"We all talk about security constantly, since everything here in Colombia is completely unpredictable," says Franoise Raoult, a Belgian doctor with DWB.

Humanitarian workers place at least part of the blame for Colombia's inhumane war on the government's shoulders. The Colombian government is "unwilling or unable to protect international humanitarian workers, who have become more important than ever before," says Amnesty International's Ms. Lee.

Vice President Gustavo Bell, in charge of President Andres Pastrana's human rights program, acknowledged in a statement following the Red Cross decision that it is difficult to provide any guarantees for humanitarian workers "in a conflict as deep and out of control as ours."

But that didn't stop him or other officials - even combatants - from begging the Red Cross to reconsider its decision. Mr. Bell called the institution "perhaps the only humanitarian space left," while the governor of Putumayo, where the wounded paramilitary soldier was killed, called the group "the last hope" for his province. Even the paramilitaries have sent a statement to Mr. Comninos, apologizing for what they called a break in the chain of command and offering assurances the act won't be repeated.

But for now, the Red Cross is staying out of Colombia's killing fields. Comninos says he is waiting on a similar message from the guerrillas before sending his delegates back to helping Colombia's fallen warriors.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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