Mohammad Saddiq didn't see the five crouching gunmen until the mine-clearing agency vehicle he was traveling in began to cross a dry riverbed in southern Afghanistan. \nSeconds later, a hail of gunfire shattered the car's windows and mirrors, punctured its tires, and left the 38-year-old medic -- three bullets struck his right shoulder -- writhing in pain. The driver too, was hit and the car rolled to a dusty halt. \n"The gunmen came running over and asked us one question," Saddiq said. "They asked, `Are there any foreigners with you?'" \nAfter a hasty search, the assailants replied with a final, angry burst of fire and fled. \nAfghanistan, struggling to achieve peace after nearly a quarter century of war, has long been a dangerous place to live and work. \nBut it's getting worse. \nToday rebels seeking to undermine the government and reconstruction efforts are taking direct aim at aid workers. \n"There's been a very, very big deterioration in security countrywide, especially for aid workers," said Rafael Robillard of ACBAR, an umbrella group of 86 aid agencies in Kabul. "Aid workers are being specifically targeted by people trying to destabilize the government, which is very dependent on aid. We're easy targets. It's a serious problem." \nIn the last month alone, seven Afghan mine-clearers have been shot and one killed in four separate ambushes in the south of the country. In March, an International Red Cross water engineer from El Salvador was murdered in southern Kandahar province. And in April, assailants threw grenades at a UN children's agency compound in the east. \nThe government of President Hamid Karzai has blamed the violence on Taliban fighters, who they say are stepping up guerrilla attacks with allied supporters of former prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and al-Qaeda remnants. \nUS troops \nAbout 11,500 US-led coalition troops, deployed in the country in support of Karzai's government, conduct regular operations to hunt down armed opposition groups. In the last two months, four US soldiers have been killed in fire-fights with rebels. \nThe UN has responded by suspending travel on some roads and restricting UN vehicle movements to daylight hours. \n"This is a new situation and we are trying to deal with it in a way that allows us to keep operating," said Manoel de Almeida e Silva, the UN spokesman in Kabul. "Is this ideal? No." \nRobillard said several international aid groups had pulled out of the south altogether and many others had scaled down operations there. The ICRC has suspended projects in some provinces and ordered expatriate staffers -- at least 25 of whom have left the country -- to stick to the major cities. \nUnder cover \nMany aid agencies in the south are moving around in beat-up, unmarked cars or taxis and some foreigners working in the region are donning traditional Afghan dress. Barker said CARE had been taking such measures for years. \nMany CARE employees, including Afghans, have been afraid to visit Ghazni -- a hotbed of suspected Taliban activity southwest of Kabul that is also home to CARE's largest office outside the capital. \nThe US says it has been shifting its own focus from combat to reconstruction operations with so-called "Provincial Reconstruction Teams," or PRTs, each comprised of 60-100 soldiers -- half civil affairs experts, half responsible for providing security. \nAmerican officials say the idea is to increase aid and security simultaneously, but aid workers say PRTs are having the opposite effect. \n"What they are doing is creating confusion in the minds of the people and actually increasing our insecurity," Robillard said. \n"What you have is people in and out of uniform distributing aid, but the ones in uniform are also engaged in hunting al-Qaeda and Taliban and killing them. Not everyone makes the distinction," he said.
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