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Update No. 99/01 on ICRC activities in Afghanistan

30-03-1999 Operational Update No 99/01

 Peace talks between Taliban and Northern Alliance  

On 14 March 1999 the two warring sides in Afghanistan reached an agreement which could bring the first signs of peace to a country torn by civil war for two decades. After four days of talks in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, under the aegis of the United Nations Special Mission in Afghanistan, the ruling Taliban authorities and those representing the active opposition in the north of the country agreed to form a shared Government at all three levels (executive, legislative and judiciary). The talks were based on a four-point agenda agreed by the parties: a broad-based Government, elections, a possible cease-fire and the release of prisoners. Although the key question of how to share office in government was not resolved at the Ashgabat talks, there is some cause for hope . The two sides agreed to continue peace talks, preferably inside Afghanistan, in order to address the remaining issues and to implement the decisions already reached.

Despite hopes that years of bloodshed may be coming to an end, and the relative calm over the winter months, fighting began again in March in the north of the country and continued, at a lower intensity,   in the Shamali plain. There have also been reports of skirmishes in the central Bamyan province, in the region of Dar-i-Suf and north of the town of Maimana.

 United Nations return to Afghanistan  

As a sign of the improving politi cal environment, on 12 March the United Nations approved a gradual return of UN agencies to the country for the first time in seven months. The first have already begun returning, although security will continue to be a central issue. Some representatives of international NGOs have also returned to Kabul, after having left the country in July 1998 following their refusal to relocate to the city's polytechnic. They are at present negotiating with the authorities in order to reach a solution regarding this issue.

 ICRC position  

The ICRC, including staff from the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, was the sole humanitarian organization remaining on Afghan soil for some months after the US missile strikes in August last year. The Taliban authorities provided the necessary guarantees for a continuation of humanitarian activities. While the general climate of insecurity at first led to a reduction of staff and a temporary restriction of operations, by the end of the year activities had nearly returned to their previous levels. 1999 began with full implementation of ICRC programmes planned for the year. Even after peace talks and the return of the UN, the ICRC will continue its activities as outlined in the objectives for 1999.

 ICRC activities  

At the talks in Ashgabat, the Taliban and the Northern Alliance agreed to release 20 detainees each as soon as possible as a confidence-building measure, and requested the ICRC to assist the handover, in accordance with its mandate. Already this year, the ICRC has facilitated the release of 60 persons held by both parties. This was the result of negotiations which began in January, when the ICRC enabled envoys from each side to visit detainees held by the other. The ICRC also ass isted representatives of the Taliban and of Commander Massoud in transporting supplies to detainees held by the other party.

In addition, the ICRC carries out the following essential programmes in Afghanistan, with the help of experienced local staff:

 for detainees  

-- after having received authorization from the highest authorities in Kandahar to check on the material and psychological conditions of detention of persons held in the northern provinces, in accordance with standard ICRC procedure, in October 1998 the ICRC carried out a series of visits to detainees captured during the latest Taliban offensives in the area. The ICRC currently visits some 7,000 detainees, captured during fighting or arrested for security reasons by all parties in Afghanistan, in over 50 places of detention.

-- thanks to the cooperation of the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS), Red Cross messages continue to be collected and distributed whenever possible. (In 1998, over 24,000 messages were collected and 16,500 distributed).

 for the wounded and war-disabled  

-- the ICRC supports surgical facilities in five hospitals, and provides medical assistance to a further ten health facilities throughout the country.

-- the ICRC's prosthetic/orthotic centres in Herat, Jalalabad, Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif continue to produce orthopaedic components and fit amputees with artificial limbs.

 for civilians  

-- the ICRC helps civilians in Kabul and elsewhere by contributing to water and sanitation work. It currently supports over 23,200 vulnerable families in Kabul with bi-monthly food distributions.

-- agricultural and veterinary projects are being expanded throughout the country, in order to support the population without creating dependency on external aid. In the Shamali plain in particular, restoration of an irrigation canal should benefit half a million people.

-- following the earthquake which hit the provinces of Wardak and Logar in February, the ICRC, in accordance with the Seville Agreement, led the Movement's humanitarian response by providing food, material for temporary shelters, and reconstruction tools for families affected by the quake. 

 for returnees  

-- the ICRC facilitates the return of displaced families who have decided to leave the camps in Herat, by maintaining its commmunity-based projects between Badghis and Faryab provinces, the region from which most of the displaced fled over two years ago.

 Federation activities  

Since August 1998, the 46 ARCS health clinics supported by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have seen thousands of people each day. The reduction in health services available has led to increased demand on the clinics.