Geneva The brutal slaying of six Red Cross workers in Congo has torn open scars at the humanitarian organization, forcing it again to confront the problem of preserving safety while working in the world's danger zones.
The Red Cross flag fluttered at half staff outside the Geneva headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross after the six workers were shot and hacked to death Thursday while transporting medicine in a remote part of northeastern Congo.
It was a repeat of the shock four years ago, when six Red Cross nurses in Chechnya were shot dead as they slept in a hospital. The 1996 killings prompted new safety guidelines, and Chechnya became a virtual no-go area for the ICRC, renowned for venturing where many U.N. agencies fear to tread.
Work has now been suspended in eastern Congo while investigators try to identify who was behind the killings.
"We are just stunned," said ICRC spokesman Darcy Christen. "The standing orders are clear: There is no movement in any areas of danger. Safety is now the top priority."
Red Cross officials are at a loss to understand why the four Congolese, one Swiss and one Colombian aid workers were attacked in Ituri Province, which is under the control of Uganda and Ugandan-backed rebels.
"We don't understand how it happened. It was an area we knew very well. The road was considered safe and they were experienced staff," Christen said.
The group was traveling in two marked Red Cross vehicles but without an armed escort as there was no perceived risk. Armed protection and guards at compounds were introduced after the Chechnya killings forced the ICRC to accept that its famous Red Cross on a white background was no longer enough to ward off hostile forces.