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AFGHANISTAN: Civilians caught in crossfire in south

KABUL, 26 March 2007 (IRIN) - Fighting between international forces and Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan continues to claim the lives of civilians, local residents say.

In a mud-brick house in the Gherishk district of the southern Afghan province of Helmand, Ezatullah, 38, is thinking about moving to Kandahar.

“Every day we see nothing but fighting between the Taliban and foreign soldiers. One day, the Taliban take over a district and lynch locals whom they perceive as enemies; another day, foreign soldiers bombard and shell the area,” Ezatullah told IRIN.

Others in the area say that non-combatants have been directly affected by recent military operations.

“We were caught in crossfire,” said Abdul Samad, a resident of Gherishk. “I lost my niece in Thursday’s [22 March] fighting and some others also got killed or wounded in the same operation,” he added.

However, officials said no civilians were hurt in the recent military operation in the area, adding that Afghan and NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) killed more than 60 insurgents in Helmand on 22 March.

“No civilian has been killed or injured in the Gherishk operation,” said General Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defence. “We did not use air strikes or artillery, only foot soldiers were sent to some specific areas to repel insurgents.”

The Taliban were ousted from power in October 2001, but its fighters have maintained a hit-and-run guerrilla war against US-led coalition forces and Afghan forces. Helmand – about 60,000 square km of plain land in the south of Afghanistan, an area more than half the size of Denmark – has been the stronghold of the mounting Taliban insurgency over the past three years.

More than 1,000 civilians were killed or injured in clashes between insurgents and ISAF in Helmand and neighbouring provinces in 2006, according to the New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch and other rights watchdogs.

Some 5,000 families have reportedly been displaced in the province since September 2006.

In February, General Abdul Rahim Wardak, Afghanistan’s Minister of Defence, confirmed reports that the Taliban had occupied Mosa Qala and two other districts in the province.

Karim Rahimi, a spokesman for President Hamid Karzai, said “the government is holding back its operation to drive out the Taliban from Helmand only to avoid civilian casualties”.

The Taliban have closed all schools in the areas under their control and have reintroduced their strict interpretation of Islamic law according to which men should grow beards, women should stay at home and no one should listen to music, local residents say.

The Taliban have reportedly beheaded dozens of tribal elders and other civilians whom they accused of siding with the US-backed government in Kabul.



Copyright © IRIN 2007
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
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