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AFGHANISTAN: ICRC asked to run hospital for war victims
Kabul, June 5, 2007 (IRIN): The government of Afghanistan has called on the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to manage a medical facility for conflict victims in Helmand Province, officials have confirmed.
The request comes more than a month after the 150-bed Emergency hospital was closed down in the southern insurgency-hit province.
"We have asked the ICRC, which is supporting a hospital in neighbouring Kandahar Province, to run Emergency hospital in Helmand Province," Abdullah Fahim, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Ministry of Public Health (MoPH), told IRIN in Kabul.
The Italian NGO, called Emergency, which set up three hospitals of the same name in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and two other provinces, pulled out of the country in late April after one of its local staff was arrested on charges of collusion with the Taliban.
"We have received the government's request and will make a decision about whether to expand our medical services once we have conducted a medical assessment of the hospital in Lashkargah [capital of Helmand Province]," said Michael O'Brien, an ICRC official in Afghanistan.
According to O'Brien, such an expansion of ICRC's medical assistance to Helmand - where many aid and development organisations, including the UN, face security restrictions - would be consistent with the organisation's humanitarian mandate.
Emergency hospitals were first established in Afghanistan in 1999. In addition to its well-equipped medical facility in Kabul, Emergency ran two similar centres in the northern Panjshir and southern Helmand provinces. Up to 28 other first aid posts were also managed by the Italian NGO across the country.
Charges of collusion
On 19 April Taliban fighters released a kidnapped Italian journalist, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, after the government set free five Taliban prisoners. However, Mastrogiacomo's Afghan interpreter, Ajmal Naqshbandi, was later beheaded by insurgents.
On 20 May Afghan intelligence forces arrested Rahmatullah Hanafi, the head of Emergency's hospital in Laskargah, on charges of brokering a half-fulfilled deal with the Taliban which culminated in Naqshbandi's death. Emergency has confirmed the involvement of Hanafi in the efforts that led up to the Italian journalist's release, but it maintains he did so only under their direct instructions.
"Rahmatullah Hanafi proved decisive for the release of Daniele Mastrogiacomo, by simply doing everything and only what the Italian government, through Emergency, asked him to do," read an Emergency press release.
Afghan officials have, however, accused Emergency's staff in Helmand of colluding with the Taliban - a charge strongly rejected by Emergency.
In response, Emergency closed down all its humanitarian medical activities in Afghanistan and criticised the head of the Afghan intelligence department for using the organisation as a scapegoat.
Minister urges Italian NGO's return
In May, Afghan Minister of Public Health Mohammad Ameen Fatimi sent a letter to the director of Emergency in Italy asking the organisation to resume its activities, the country's MoPH reported.
"We have set no conditions for Emergency's return and will be pleased to welcome it back to the country," a spokesman for the ministry told IRIN.
However, Santanu Sanyal, an international adviser to the minister of public health, remained pessimistic about a possible return. "We gave Emergency a month to resume its activities in Afghanistan. There has been no response from them. I believe the organisation will not return," Sanyal said.
Hundreds of people in Kabul submitted a petition calling on the aid body to return, a member of Kabul's city council said.
Demand for detainee's release
Emergency, however, has repeatedly demanded the release of Rahmatullah Hanafi and has halted its operations in protest over his detention.
"In a poor and undeveloped country like Afghanistan, particularly in areas where violent armed conflicts still cause widespread harm, Emergency is seriously needed to help people in need of medical attention. Emergency should not let thousands of people suffer only for the release of one of its staff," Abdul Hadi, a member of parliament, said.
Criticised for treating Taliban wounded
The governor of Helmand Province, Assadullah Waffa, has criticised Emergency for treating wounded Taliban insurgents and other anti-government fighters.
"Emergency was a base for terrorists and the Taliban," the governor told IRIN. "We will not allow a hospital to cure our enemies and terrorists who after treatment attack the same medical facility and kidnap health workers."
Under the Geneva Convention, however, medical assistance should be provided to all "without any adverse distinction founded on sex, race, nationality, religion, political opinions, or any other similar criteria."