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Since 1st March, 1999
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Red Cross to shut offices in Baghdad, Basra

Geneva, Nov. 8 (Reuters): The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said today it had decided to shut its offices in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra because of concerns over staff safety.

A car bombing at the Red Cross headquarters in Baghdad last month killed 12 people and shocked the foreign aid community, stirring doubt about whether US-led coalition forces can bring order to the country.

“We are temporarily closing our offices in Baghdad and Basra,” Florian Westphal, spokesman of the Swiss-based group, said. “We are still discussing what to do with our foreign staff. The situation is extremely dangerous and volatile.”

He declined to elaborate, saying: “We are trying to ensure we don’t go public with too many details on this because we feel it may be problematic for our people on the ground.”

He was confirming a report by Zurich’s Tages-Anzeiger newspaper, which quoted ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger as saying that the group had decided not to operate in Iraq under military protection. This, he said, could not be reconciled with its concept of independent humanitarian action.

“But we will remain present in northern Iraq. Our future activity will focus on visiting prisoners, re-establishing family contacts and providing emergency aid in the areas of water and medicine,” he said.

The Italian branch of the Red Cross said its 32 doctors and nurses who have been in Iraq since April would continue work at Medical City, a sprawling hospital in northern Baghdad, along with some 40 Iraqi staff.

“The Italian Red Cross will stay in Iraq, but this is not contrary to the decision by the international committee, which has warned us to increase security measures,” a spokesman said.

The ICRC had had around 30 international and 600 Iraqi staff active in Iraq before last month’s bombing.

The attack was the bloodiest on an international organisation since a massive truck bomb devastated the UN’s headquarters in the capital on August 19, killing 22 people, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the top UN envoy to Iraq. It was the first the ICRC had suffered in its 140-year history and prompted it to reduce international staff. The Red Cross has been in Iraq continuously since 1980, through three wars.

War zone

US warplanes, in a swift response to the downing of another American helicopter, bombed targets in Iraq today for the first time since President George W. Bush declared major combat over on May 1.

The US army said the air strikes targeting suspected guerrilla hideouts in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit was a “show of force” after insurgents killed six soldiers when they shot down a Black Hawk helicopter yesterday.

As the American military reported the deaths of two more of its soldiers in a bomb attack in Iraq, US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage told a news conference in Baghdad that Iraq was still a “war zone”.

And in a grim reminder of Saddam’s decades-long dictatorial rule, Iraqi and American rights investigators told a conference today they had identified 260 mass graves containing the bodies of at least 300,000 Iraqis murdered by his regime.

Today’s new attack by insurgents in the volatile town of Falluja, west of Baghdad, two US soldiers were killed and one was wounded when a roadside bomb was detonated near their convoy.

Loud explosions, probably caused by mortars or rockets, echoed across the Iraqi capital Baghdad this evening in the third apparent attack on the city by insurgents this week.

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