KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — The deaths of five U.N. employees in a Taliban assault on a Kabul guesthouse Wednesday is forcing the world body and humanitarian agencies to reevaluate the way they operate in Afghanistan, officials said, putting at risk programs aimed at helping millions of people and stabilizing the war-torn country.
U.N. special representative Kai Eide said the attack, which killed eight people, including an American, would not deter his organization from continuing its reconstruction and development work.
But already the ability of U.N. workers to deliver aid has been compromised. With less than two weeks to go before Afghanistan holds a runoff presidential election that is the focus of the world body's current efforts, all employees across the country were placed under lockdown, said Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
"This is the most serious incident that we have experienced in Afghanistan," Edwards said. "Previously when U.N. staff have been killed, they have usually been in close proximity to the military. It is not often that we are specifically targeted."
Before the first round of voting, U.N. personnel provided training, advice and logistical support to Afghan election officials. Much of the preparation for the runoff vote has already been completed, a U.N. spokesman said, but it remains unclear, because of security concerns, how much U.N. employees will be able to visit polling stations and meet with election officials and candidates in coming days.
Gunfire rattled the central Shar-e-Naw neighborhood for more than an hour as Afghan police and U.N. security officers fought at least three attackers armed with suicide vests, grenades and automatic rifles. Guests screamed for help and leaped across rooftops to escape the shooting and flames, which quickly engulfed the building, witnesses said.
Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman reached by telephone, said his group targeted U.N. employees because of their assistance to the Nov. 7 runoff election between President Hamid Karzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
Electoral officials threw out nearly 1 million votes cast for Karzai after the first round of voting Aug. 20 because of fraud, leaving him just below the 50% threshold required for an outright win.
"This is our first attack on U.N. staff in Kabul because of the elections . . . and we will continue the attacks," Mujahid said.
U.N., U.S. and Afghan officials said the assault would not undermine the Nov. 7 vote.
"At this point, I would simply say that all operational preparations are being put in place to minimize fraud," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at a news conference in New York. "If the first round showed anything, it was that fraud does not win. It merely undermines the legitimacy of the results."
The U.N. pulled out of Iraq for several years after 22 people were killed in a 2003 truck bombing at its Baghdad headquarters. But Ban appeared to rule out that option.
"We stand by the people of Afghanistan today, and we will do so tomorrow," he said. "We will, of course, review our security procedures, as we do regularly for the Afghanistan mission as a whole. We will take all necessary measures to protect our staff."
About 20 U.N. agencies operate in Afghanistan alongside more than 100 local and international nongovernmental groups. The world body has helped about 4.5 million refugees return from Pakistan, delivered food to more than 6 million people this year, sponsored development projects and responded to numerous natural disasters.
U.S. military commanders consider such programs vital to their attempts to woo civilians away from the Taliban insurgency and build support for the government.
Foreigners make up about 20% of the U.N.'s 4,500 employees in Afghanistan. Some of them worried Wednesday that they could all be ordered to leave as officials weighed whether to post more guards at U.N. compounds, evacuate nonessential staff and other measures.
Most of the foreigners live in staff houses or guesthouses like the one attacked Wednesday, protected by walls and a handful of U.N. guards.
"You want to be part of the community, rather than in a distant, sealed compound," said Edwards, the U.N. spokesman. But, he added, "we've got lots of our staff at home tonight feeling probably pretty nervous."
At least 25 U.N. staff members, including 17 members of the U.N. Development Program election team, were staying at the targeted guesthouse, Ban said.
The U.N. initially said that six of its employees had been killed, but the toll was later revised to five. U.S. Embassy officials said an American was among the five foreigners. Others came from Liberia, Ghana and the Philippines, according to a U.N. official who requested anonymity because she was not authorized to release the information. The fifth body was so badly burned that it could not immediately be identified, Edwards said.