The Red Cross Saturday condemned the use of booby trap bombs by the Taliban in an area of southern Afghanistan that has been so heavily mined people are afraid to leave their homes.
The bombs -- known as improvised explosive devises (IEDs) -- are also preventing refugees from returning to the area of Helmand province where US Marines have led 15,000 troops in an assault against the Taliban, it said.
In an unusually strong statement, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said the use of IEDs -- the main weapon in the Taliban arsenal -- was "completely unacceptable".
The Marjah farming area has been so heavily laced with IEDs that civilians are largely confined indoors and the sick and injured cannot be evacuated for help, it said.
People who fled the area before and during the assault, launched on February 13, feared returning along heavily-mined roads to villages where commanders and residents have said the bombs are planted in fields, hanging from trees and even embedded in the walls of houses.
|An Afghan boy practices walking with prosthesis at an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)|
"Improvised mines and other explosive devices are posing a deadly threat to civilians in Marjah," Reto Stocker, head of the ICRC in Kabul, was quoted in a statement as saying.
"They make it almost impossible for people to venture out or to evacuate the sick and wounded, who therefore receive little or no medical care," he said.
The use of mines, and the lack of any measures to protect civilians "runs counter to the most basic principles of international humanitarian law," the statement said.
"Any use of these weapons, which are prohibited in the country under the Mine Ban Convention just as they are in 155 other countries, is completely unacceptable."
The Red Cross rarely employs such powerful language, preferring to use its neutrality to influence all parties to armed conflict to adhere to accepted guidelines for treatment of civilians and war wounded.
The Geneva-based organisation is one of the few that has dialogue with the leadership of the Taliban, which is waging a brutal war against the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan supporting President Hamid Karzai's government.
The condemnation of the use of IEDs implies extreme frustration with the way the Taliban has deployed weaponry that is by definition indiscriminate in its targeting.
A UN report released earlier this year said the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties in the Afghan war -- now in its ninth year since the overthrow of the Taliban's 1996-2001 regime -- are caused by Taliban attacks, mostly using IEDs and suicide bombers.
Operation Mushtarak ("together" in Dari) is slowly winding down as resistance from the Taliban, who for years controlled the area along with drug traffickers, wanes, NATO and Afghan commanders said this week.
But Afghanistan's defence ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi said IEDs are the main challenge facing troops yet to bring the area under complete control, and for civilians wanting to go home.
The UN said this week that 27,700 people left Marjah and Nad Ali, target areas of Mushtarak, which aimed to clear the way for the Afghan government to re-establish sovereignty, security and civil services.
By March 2, only 645 families, or about 4,500 people, had returned, the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) said.
It said despite mine clearance efforts, IEDs were still being placed along the roads leading out of Marjah, which along with Taliban checkpoints were restricting movement of people and goods, leading to food shortages.
Irrigation canals in the area -- lush farmland that produces opium poppies that are the raw material for most of the world's heroin -- had been damaged in fighting, UNOCHA said.
As a result, farmland and winter food storage had been destroyed and livestock killed, it said, laying the groundwork for further food shortages as people had no livelihood to return to.
The ICRC's Stocker said little food was reaching Marjah as few commercial vehicles were able to enter.
"Sooner or later, residents and displaced persons will have no choice but to move about, if only to find food and water," he said.
"Sadly, there will almost certainly be casualties, as improvised mines and unexploded homemade bombs do not differentiate between a military vehicle and a boy on a bicycle."