Red Cross Workers Killed In Congo

President Bush with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, 09/26/2006
Attackers with guns and machetes shot and slashed to death six Red Cross workers on a remote road in eastern Congo, leaving their bodies to be discovered in their burned vehicles, aid workers said Friday.

The ambush Thursday marked the deadliest single attack on the International Committee of the Red Cross in five years. The victims were a Swiss nurse, a Colombian relief worker and four Congolese. Some were shot, others were both shot and cut with machetes, said Boni Mbaka, a U.N. official who saw some of the bodies.

"It's very horrible," Mbaka said. "There were no survivors (so) it's difficult to say what happened."

The Red Cross immediately suspended operations in eastern Congo, the region hardest hit by a two-and-a-half-year war that has involved six nations.

International relief officials met late Friday in the border town of Goma to decide whether to cease operations entirely in the region, where more than a million people -- mostly civilians -- have died in fighting, disease and hunger related to the conflict.

Congo's war started in 1998 when Rwanda, Uganda and their rebel allies took up arms against President Laurent Kabila, accusing him of sheltering militias that threatened regional security. Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia entered the war on Congo's side.

The aid workers were attacked while taking medicine to a health center in rebel- and Ugandan-held northeast Congo, traveling without armed escort in two Red Cross-marked vehicles.

Colleagues became worried when they lost radio contact with the team, and alerted authorities, said Antoine Atawamba, Red Cross spokesman in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital.

A Ugandan military patrol found the bodies and the vehicles about 40 miles north of the border town of Bunia.

The two vehicles were set on fire, Red Cross officials said. That they were left behind was unusual, distinguishing the attack from robberies by bandits or typical attacks by Congolese Mayi-Mayi warriors and Rwandan Hutu Interahamwe militiamen.

"We're not blaming anyone, because we don't know who to blame," said Paul Castella, head of the Red Cross delegation in Kinshasa.

The Red Cross identified the foreign victims as Rita Fox, a 36-year-old Swiss nurse, and Julio Delgado, a 54-year-old Colombian relief worker.

The four Congolese staff were nurse Veronique Saro, 33; Unen Ufoirworth, 29, a staff member in charge of reuniting families separated by the fighting; and drivers Aduwe Boboli, 39, and Jean Molokabonge, 56.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was "greatly distressed to learn of the brutal murders," spokeswoman Marie Okabe said. Annan appealed to all Congo's combatants to allow safe access to civilians in need, she said.

Th killings took place in Ituri Province, which is under the control of Uganda and a Uganda-backed rebel group led by Jean-Pierre Bemba.

Bemba called the killings an "inexcusable assassination" and said an inquiry by his movement was under way.

Earlier this month, Bemba agreed to pull his forces back from two front-line positions after the United Nations promised to establish relief operations in the areas.

Bemba has been claiming credit for the work of international organizations operating in his territory, where public services are scarcely running.

Humanitarian groups operating in the area frequently are accused of bias by one side or the other.

Herdsmen and farmers in Ituri Province have fought for control of rich grasslands, but the violence had subsided in recent months after peace talks.

"We didn't consider that a particularly dangerous area," Castella said.

Thursday's killings marked the worst single attack against the Red Cross, a neutral Swiss-run humanitarian agency, since 1996, when six nurses were slain in their sleep at a hospital in Chechnya. Three Red Cross workers were killed in Burundi the same year.

Fighting in Congo has largely subsided since the January assassination of Kabila, who had resisted a 1999 cease-fire accord agreed to by all combatants. Kabila was succeeded by his son, Joseph.

The United Nations now is deploying 3,000 armed troops to patrol buffer zones between the government and opposing sides. The agency is helping victims of the war, including its estimated 2 million displaced.

©MMI, The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed