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ICRC ready to deal with potential Afghan crisis

Afghanistan is the ICRC's biggest operation worldwide

Amid reports that civilians are abandoning Afghanistan's major cities in anticipation of an American military strike, officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who were forced to leave Afghanistan on Sunday have told swissinfo about the mounting concern within the country.

“They are getting increasingly worried. They don’t know what is going to happen,” Mario Musa, the ICRC’s spokesman in Afghanistan, says.

The United States is widely expected to launch some kind of military action against the ruling Taliban regime, which it accused of harbouring Osama Bin Laden, presumed mastermind of last week’s terrorist attacks in new York and Washington.

The Geneva-based ICRC was forced to pull its 15 remaining foreign personnel out of Afghanistan on Sunday, after the Taliban said it could not guarantee their safety. Operations are now being directed from the Pakistani city of Peshawar, which already served as a logistical base for Red Cross operations in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is the ICRC’s biggest operation worldwide, and it was eager to maintain a core management presence there regardless of what action the United States took. But it insists its operations have not yet been affected by the withdrawal.

“We have 1,000 national staff and they are still working,” says Musa.

“We are in daily contact with them. They believe it’s really important for them to continue their operations at this particular time,” he told swissinfo from Peshawar. Musa said the ICRC is concentrating its efforts on its medical projects.

Taliban stronghold

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, also based in Geneva, said that residents had begun fleeing large cities like Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad. Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold in the south of the country, was said to be “half empty”.

It is believed that civilians are making their way to their native villages in the countryside, where aid is difficult to deliver, or to neighbouring countries like Iran and Pakistan, which are already home to hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees.

Based on what ICRC staff still in the country have told him, Musa said reports of panic among Afghan civilians were wide of the mark, although tension is growing.

“Afghan people are incredibly resilient. They’ve been through many similar situations before,” Musa said.

“What is different this time is the complete uncertainty. They know something will happen, but they don’t know where, when, how or to what extent it will affect their lives. Their lives are already a continuous struggle for survival,” he added.

Musa said the ICRC’s foreign workers were eager to get back into Afghanistan as soon as possible. One factor that might delay them is the reaction of Pakistan’s radical Islamic groups to their government’s support for American military action against the Taliban.

“In Peshawar, the tension is very high,” Musa said.

by Roy Probert

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR