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Afghans suffering more as conflict widens

Suicide attacks have become more frequent in Afghanistan Keystone

The International Committee of the Red Cross has warned that civilians face increasing hardship in Afghanistan as fighting continues to spread across the country.

This content was published on September 13, 2007 - 21:46

The Swiss-run organisation said on Thursday that the worsening security situation meant large parts of the country were close to becoming "no-go areas" for aid workers.

Speaking at a news conference in Geneva, Reto Stocker, the ICRC's head of delegation in Kabul, said the conflict was "clearly spreading and in certain areas is intensifying".

He said there had been a significant increase in the number of civilian casualties as a result of aerial bombardments and suicide attacks, adding that the conflict was driving more and more people from their homes.

The delivery of basic services such as medical care and education had become "problematic" over wide areas of southern Afghanistan, he added.

"Relatively large parts of the conflict-affected areas are not very far from no-go areas," said Stocker.

"There are definitely lots of districts in the south that have not seen for a prolonged period of time representatives of national or international NGOs [non-governmental organisations], and that also includes the ICRC and United Nations."

Conflict spreading

The conflict, which two years ago was largely confined to the south, has since spread east towards Kabul and into the northwest and now affects more than half the country, according to the ICRC.

The main fighting is between the Afghan government and Nato-led troops on the one side, and resurgent Taliban forces on the other.

The Geneva-based organisation says it has raised concerns with all conflict parties over the high number of civilian casualties and the increase in suicide bombings. There are reported to have been more than 100 such attacks so far this year.

Stocker was in Geneva to push for a 30 per cent increase in the ICRC's budget for Afghanistan and a similar rise in the number of national and expatriate staff. The projected budget for this year is SFr45 million ($38 million).

He described the current funding shortfall as "not acceptable" at a time when the ICRC was still capable of addressing a series of needs in the country.

Stocker added that the country needed to be viewed in the context of a humanitarian emergency and that it was too early to talk about development.

IDP numbers growing

The ICRC's grim assessment comes less than a month after Switzerland's Walter Kälin, the United Nations representative for the human rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs), warned of a growing humanitarian crisis in the country.

The Swiss human rights expert said fighting had driven tens of thousands of people from their homes and the number of displaced was growing by the day.

According to the UN, 129,000 IDPs were displaced by drought and insecurity in 2000 and 2001 and are still unable to return home.

Up to 80,000 additional civilians have been forced to leave their homes by the recent upsurge in fighting. There are around three million Afghan refugees in neighbouring countries such as Iran and Pakistan.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

In brief

Many Afghans returning to their homeland face a number of major challenges, including a lack of employment, health care, education and housing, according to a recent assessment carried out with the support of the United Nations refugee agency.

The vast majority – over 85 per cent – of the more than 11,000 Afghans interviewed listed job opportunities, access to safe drinking water, improvement of health and education facilities, and housing as their top priorities for the future.

The study found chronic food shortages among those interviewed, and more than half said they did not have access to safe drinking water, while 60 per cent were living on less than $1 a day.

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ICRC in Afghanistan

The ICRC has been present in Afghanistan since 1987 and has 1,179 staff, including 62 expatriates, in the country.

Last month the organisation facilitated the release of 21 South Korean hostages held by Taliban militants in Ghazni province. Two male captives were executed at the end of July.

The ICRC says the situation for detainees held in Afghanistan's "crumbling" prison system is deteriorating. The number of detainees is said to have increased from 5,000 to 12,000 in two years.

It says 65,000 people, mainly amputees, have benefited from ICRC-run orthopaedic services.

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