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Afghan Civilians at Risk During NATO Offensive Against Taleban

WASHINGTON - Amnesty International calls on both sides to protect Afghan
civilians as NATO and Afghan forces continue a major military offensive
in the southern province of Helmand.

"About 10,000 civilians have fled the conflict zone, but thousands
more are caught up in the fighting," said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty
International's Asia-Pacific Director.

"Afghanistan is likely to witness heavier fighting this year than
ever before, and last year the war already claimed more than 2,400
civilian casualties, the highest number since 2001. So it's crucial for
all sides to take efforts to minimize harm to civilians."

Displaced residents have reported that the Taleban tried to prevent
civilians from leaving the conflict area and in some instances have
fired from, and sought shelter among the civilian population

The Taleban and other anti-government groups were responsible for
some two-thirds of all civilian casualties and injuries last year,
according to UN estimates.

 "The Taleban have a record of knowingly endangering Afghan
civilians in their operations, which can constitute a war crime," Sam
Zarifi said. "Insurgent groups are bound by international law to take
every possible precaution to protect the lives of civilians. The
Taleban invoke international laws of war when it suits their purposes.
Their failure to respect these laws is inexcusable and they should be
held to account for their actions."

Amnesty International also urged Afghan and international military
forces to ensure they comply with their legal obligation to protect
civilians from harm.

Operations by NATO forces have already lead to the deaths of at
least 15 civilians in and around the Marjah region since the "Operation
Moshtarak" ("Joint Command") offensive began on February 13th.

Twelve people, including six children, died after two US missiles
struck a house on the outskirts of Marja district on Sunday. NATO has
claimed that the attack was caused by a faulty missile system.

"The US and NATO have made commitments to minimise civilian
casualties.  But international and Afghan forces still lack a
consistent, clear and credible mechanism to investigate civilian
casualties, provide accountability and ensure that such incidents do
not recur," Sam Zarifi said. "This is now particularly urgent with more
than 30,000 extra foreign troops deployed in Afghanistan and apparently
committed to a more aggressive military strategy." 

Amnesty International also called on all warring parties to ensure
that humanitarian assistance can reach needy civilians. The operation,
which targets Marjah and Nad Ali districts of Helmand, has resulted in
thousands of residents fleeing the conflict zone for Helmand's main
town, Lashkar Gah, as well as to the towns of Kandahar and Herat.

The Afghan Department for Refugees and Returnees has reportedly
registered more than 6,000 displaced people from Marja and Nad Ali
since the operations were announced.

"We know that in other recent campaigns, thousands of displaced
people have not been registered with the authorities, as they have
chosen to stay with family and friends, often ignored or out of reach
of humanitarian assistance," Sam Zarifi said.

Amnesty International calls upon the Afghan government and all
relevant national and international aid agencies to provide immediate
assistance for the displaced, including essential food and potable
water, basic shelter, appropriate clothing and heating materials as
well as essential medical services and sanitation, in line with the UN
Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.


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Amnesty International is a worldwide movement of people who campaign for internationally recognized human rights for all. Our supporters are outraged by human rights abuses but inspired by hope for a better world - so we work to improve human rights through campaigning and international solidarity. We have more than 2.2 million members and subscribers in more than 150 countries and regions and we coordinate this support to act for justice on a wide range of issues.

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