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Top UN envoy to Afghanistan urges greater efforts to avoid civilian casualties

Top UN envoy to Afghanistan urges greater efforts to avoid civilian casualties

Special Representative Staffan de Mistura addresses press in Kabul [File Photo]
The top United Nations envoy in Afghanistan today voiced his concern over a “disturbing trend” of civilian casualties caused by recent international military operations in the country, urging greater efforts to protect non-combatants.

On 12 April, four civilians were reportedly killed and 18 others injured in the Zhari district of the southern province of Kandahar, when international military forces fired at a bus.

“I am deeply saddened and seriously concerned by this loss of civilian life and once again call on all parties to the conflict to do their utmost to minimize harm to ordinary Afghans and to take every possible precautionary measure to distinguish between civilians and combatants in their operations,” said Staffan de Mistura, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative.

Mr. de Mistura said he appreciated the decision by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to conduct an investigation into Monday’s incident, and welcomed the new guidelines by its commander on the use of lethal force.

The envoy added that he is “anxious to see them effectively implemented.”

Monday’s incident follows other recent reports of civilian casualties, including the killing of four civilians on 6 April by international forces in connection with an engagement with insurgents inside a compound in Nahr-e-Saraj.

In February, a night raid on a family compound outside Gardez by international forces resulted in the deaths of three women and two men.

This is a “disturbing trend, and all efforts must be undertaken to ensure it is reversed,” said Mr. de Mistura, who also heads the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

Meanwhile, the Special Representative also called for a quick and thorough investigation into the case of three Italian medical workers and their six Afghan colleagues who were detained on 10 April in Helmand province.

The group was detained by Afghan authorities after weapons were reportedly discovered in a storeroom of the hospital where they were working.

The Italian medical workers belong to the medical non-governmental organization (NGO) Emergency, which has operated in Afghanistan for more than a decade, dispensing critical health care to Afghans in a volatile region, according to a news release issued by UNAMA.

“I am hopeful that these arrests are due to some serious misunderstanding,” he said. “International medical workers in places like Helmand are risking their lives to treat all who come to them for help.”

Mr. de Mistura called on President Hamid Karzai and relevant Afghan authorities to ensure that the Italian medical workers receive proper legal assistance and that they be accorded due process, safe conditions and visits from their embassy.

The Special Representative has also spoken out against an attack on a bus carrying a group of deminers on their way to work in Kandahar province on 11 April. Five of the deminers were killed, and 16 injured, when the vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb.

“I deplore this attack on these courageous people who for years have devoted their lives to making Afghanistan safer for all,” Mr. de Mistura said in a news release issued yesterday.

“Mine action is a neutral humanitarian activity which makes land safer for all Afghans regardless of ethnicity or political affiliation. I call on all parties to respect this life-saving work and the neutrality of its practitioners,” he added.

The UN-supported Mine Action Coordination Centre of Afghanistan, the umbrella organization for all entities carrying out mine action in the country, maintains that the deminers – who were employed by the Demining Agency for Afghanistan – were attacked and condemned the targeting of humanitarian deminers.

According to the Centre, a total of 51,743 anti-personnel mines, 1,152,738 explosive remnants of war and 746 anti-tank mines were destroyed in 2009 in Afghanistan.

It estimates there are still 2,082 contaminated communities in the country, and that some 600 square kilometres of land containing 5,384 hazardous areas still needs to be cleared of mines and explosive remnants of war.