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Peace Corps pulling more than 50 volunteers out of Kenya over security fears, officials say

NAIROBI, Kenya - The Peace Corps is suspending its programs in Kenya because of security concerns and is pulling more than 50 volunteers out of the country until threat levels decrease, the Peace Corps and State Department said Thursday.

A statement to The Associated Press from the State Department said that the Peace Corps "has been closely monitoring the security environment in Kenya ... and has decided to officially suspend the program in Kenya." The Peace Corps will monitor the security situation and determine when volunteers can return, it said.

The decision comes amid a tightening of security by the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, which has seen dozens of grenade and gunfire attacks the last two years. Earlier this year the U.S. increased the number of security personnel at the embassy and put armed Marines behind sandbag bunkers on the embassy roof. The State Department also reduced the number of U.S. personnel here by moving a regional USAID office out of the country.

The decision to suspend the Peace Corps program has been in the works for a while but was not announced publicly. U.S. warnings about the high risk of terror attacks in Kenya always ruffle the feathers of Kenyan leaders, and the State Department and Peace Corps statements underscored the long U.S.-Kenya relationship and the hundreds of millions of dollars the U.S. pours into Kenya every year.

But it was clear that given the grenade and gunfire assaults, as well as the massive attack on Westgate Mall last year that killed at least 67 people, the government felt that its Peace Corps volunteers — who live in far-flung villages with little security protection — were vulnerable.

Recent Peace Corps volunteers in Kenya said they felt the U.S. government program did a good job of keeping them updated about security, including the sending of security text messages, but they acknowledged that security was deteriorating.

"Some volunteers weren't very pleased with the level of security they provided, but I'm not sure what they were expecting. We don't have security guards to protect us, and it's Kenya, so sometimes bad things happen regardless of any preventative measures," said Nik Schuetz, a 28-year-old volunteer in Kenya from 2009-11 now studying at the University of Kansas.

The Peace Corps, which was founded in 1961 after the suggestion of then-Sen. John Kennedy, has some 7,000 volunteers in 65 countries working on education, health and environmental issues. Nearly 50 per cent of the program's volunteers are in Africa. The program has had to pull volunteers out of dangerous situations before, including in Nepal in 2004 and in Kenya after the 2007-08 election violence. The Peace Corps also suspended its program in Ukraine in April.

Schuetz was initially placed in western Kenya with a public health program but his house was broken into and his belongings stolen, so the program moved him to another province, where he stayed for two years.

"They taught us to be smart about our surroundings and to trust the hairs on the back of our necks to sense whether it was a safe situation or not. And some things like bombings or grenade attacks, you just can't prepare for other than leaving the country," he said.

Anna Martin a Peace Corps volunteer in Busia, Kenya from 2010-12 who still lives in the country, said she always felt safe as a Peace Corps volunteer because the U.S. mission was "always making the best decisions regarding our safety and well-being."

"My opinion ... is that things just weren't getting better," said Martin. "Peace Corps had already taken measures to protect volunteers but had to ultimately make a bigger decision. And it a wise one."

At full strength the Peace Corps has had more than 125 volunteers in Kenya in recent years, and the pull-outs will hurt communities receiving American assistance. Shira Kramer, the spokeswoman for the Peace Corps, said the program hopes the volunteers can return "to support the country in meeting its development goals."

A third recent Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, Travis Axe, said there was no doubt that aid groups, schools and pharmacies would be negatively affected by the pull-out.

"Kenya is spearheading the growth and trends of so many sectors in East Africa; it is a shame to see such a wonderful program be cut from a country that has so much potential," he said.

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