June 12, 2007 / 8:10 AM / 12 years ago

ICRC says NATO must prevent Afghan civilian casualties

GENEVA (Reuters) - NATO must do more to prevent civilian casualties during military operations in Afghanistan, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Tuesday.

Afghans look at a damaged car after a suicide attack in Gardez, the provincial capital of Paktia, May 20, 2007. The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has worsened in the last year and civilians are bearing the brunt of suicide attacks and aerial bombing raids, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Stringer

NATO-led international forces have killed dozens of civilians in aerial strikes on armed groups which are sometimes carried out without necessary precautions, ICRC director of operations Pierre Kraehenbuehl said.

“We think clearly much more must be done to preserve and spare civilians when these types of military operations are underway,” he told a news briefing in Geneva.

Armed opposition groups — the ICRC term for Taliban guerrillas and their al Qaeda allies — also have a responsibility not to put civilians at risk, he said.

“We have multiple situations of roadside bombs, suicide attacks, targeted killings. We’ve also had situations of sustained and significant aerial bombing raids and military operations,” Kraehenbuehl said.

The escalating conflict and insecurity have largely confined the ICRC to major cities, reflecting the greatest restrictions on its relief work in Afghanistan in 20 years, it said.

About 50,000 foreign troops led by the U.S. military and NATO are in Afghanistan, battling a resurgent Taliban and their al Qaeda allies.

On Tuesday, U.S-led forces mistakenly killed seven policemen in an air strike in the east of the country after Afghan forces came under attack from the Taliban and asked for help, a provincial official said. He said 13 policemen were missing.

If the deaths are confirmed, the incident would be one of the most serious cases of mistaken firing on Western or Afghan security forces by the U.S.-led coalition force.

The humanitarian agency said that since 2006 the violence and insecurity had significantly intensified in the south and east and was spreading to the north and west, bringing a “growing number of civilian casualties”.

Some 1,800 war wounded were admitted to 14 ICRC-sponsored health facilities throughout the country last year.

Kraehenbuehl cited a “sustained series of bombing raids” in late April in Shindand district of western Herat province, in which he said several dozen civilians were killed.

Some 170 homes were badly damaged in the attack and heavy fighting which also forced 2,000 civilians to flee, according to ICRC estimates.

“There was both exposure of civilians to risk by the presence of armed actors on the ground, but also concerns about the measures of precaution,” he said.

Kraehenbuehl said there had been a steady deterioration of medical services in Afghanistan’s remote areas, where important needs were unmet. “The civilians most in need are also the most difficult to reach,” he said.

The ICRC deploys some 1,179 people, including some 62 expatriates, in the country where it provides supplies to hospitals and rehabilitation centres for landmine victims.

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