11 Feb 2010 00:15:43 GMT
Written by: Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (AlertNet) – Concern is mounting over the plight of tens of thousands of civilians ahead of a major assault by NATO troops on one of the last big Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan, aid agencies said.
NATO forces, led by thousands of U.S. troops, are massing for an attack, due within days, around Marjah town in Helmand province, in one of the largest military operations since the war began in 2001.
As small-scale operations get underway ahead of the main assault, hundreds of families living in and around the town of Marjah have fled – many seeking refuge in temporary camps, with relatives and friends or renting homes in the nearby provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.
But the majority of Marjah’s estimated 100,000 residents have remained behind, raising concerns over the increased risk of civilian casualties.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said “increasing numbers of war casualties” had already been arriving at a clinic it runs in Marjah.
“Our basic concern is that the injured will not be able to get the medical assistance they require as the health facilities in the area are very basic and will unlikely be able to treat those with war wounds,” the ICRC’s spokesman in Afghanistan, Bijan Frederic Farnoudi, told AlertNet.
“The increased insecurity will make it difficult for the wounded to travel to better equipped hospitals in the province due to the numerous checkpoints and roadblocks. We are calling on all parties to respect international humanitarian law to allow all those injured to access medical assistance.”
“REMAIN IN HOMES”
The assault named “Operation Moshtarak” – which means “together” in the Dari language spoken in Afghanistan – incorporates thousands of Afghan and international troops and will be the first big show of force since U.S. President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan in December.
But analysts say the risk of a large number of civilian casualties could undermine the Obama administration’s military strategy for the country.
In the past few days, leaflets warning people of the impending offensive have been dropped over the densely-populated town, but both international forces and the Afghan authorities are advising civilians to stay and not to flee.
Authorities and aid agencies estimate about 300 families or around 1,800 people had fled so far. An Afghan family averages around 6 people, though many are much larger.
The U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said earlier this week that despite reports suggesting mass numbers of civilians were fleeing, most of the affected population had decided to stay.
“Combined force commanders are encouraging civilians to remain in the safety of their homes,” ISAF said in a statement this week. “Every effort is being made to ensure minimum disruption to the residents during the operation.”
But human rights groups say that since NATO has encouraged people to stay, it bears an additional legal and moral responsibility to avoid heavy fighting that would cause civilian casualties.
The United Nations said it was not expecting huge numbers of civilians to be displaced as a result of the violence, but added that emergency relief was available in the area should humanitarian action be required.
“We stand ready to help and we have stocks of food and non-food items already available in Helmand province and we can assist,” a U.N. spokesman in Afghanistan, Dan McNorton, told AlertNet.
For security reasons, U.N. agencies do not have staff in Helmand – Afghanistan’s most violent province and the heartland of its huge opium industry – but implement aid projects through local government bodies and national aid agencies.
The ICRC said it was sending medical kits to its clinic in Marjah – enough to help treat 30 severely wounded or 300 moderately wounded patients.
A lack of clarity on the numbers fleeing the area – with many staying with relatives or rented accommodation in nearby towns – made it difficult to assist with food and shelter, the ICRC added.
The Afghan government said on Wednesday it had enough food to feed around 6,000 families.
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