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Red Cross Calls For More Action To Protect Afghan Civilians

A civilian injured in U.S.-led coalition air strike receives treatment in Kandahar
KABUL (Reuters) -- All sides in the war in Afghanistan must do much more to protect civilians, who will face the brunt of any increase in violence with the arrival of thousands of new troops, a top Red Cross official has said.

Ordinary Afghans are now more at risk from the fighting than at any other time since the start of the war in 2001, said Pierre Kraehenbuehl, director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Kraehenbuehl told a news conference that unless much more was done by the different parties to the conflict to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law, "the ICRC seriously fears that the Afghan population will bear the brunt of the announced and potential escalation."

Violence in Afghanistan surged last year, with some 5,000 people killed, including more than 2,100 civilians, a 40 percent increase on the previous year, the United Nations says.

President Barack Obama has ordered 17,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan to bolster some 70,000 foreign troops, including 38,000 U.S. soldiers already in the country fighting a resurgent Taliban.

Although more reluctant than the United States, NATO countries are also expected to send some more troops this year to help provide security for the presidential election.

But more troops will likely lead to more violent clashes between international and Afghan forces and the militants, causing even more difficulties for civilians, Kraehenbuehl said.

"If the way in which the fighting has been taking place -- with the impact on civilians -- would continue in this fashion, then we are very worried about additional serious problems for the civilians," he said.

Kraehenbuehl, who was speaking at the end of a six-day visit to the country, said he had met U.S. General David McKiernan, commander of all international forces in Afghanistan, and General Jeffrey Schloesser, who is in charge of U.S. troops in the east.

Both generals were receptive to the ICRC's concerns regarding civilians and were committed to ongoing dialogue, he said. Kraehenbuehl also met representatives of the Taliban to voice concern over the tactics employed by the hardline Islamists.

Although Kraehenbuehl did not elaborate on his meetings with the Taliban, he said he found "it important that these points could be made and discussed with the Taliban."

Last year, 55 percent of civilians killed in fighting died at the hands of Taliban insurgents and their allies, while a quarter of all civilian casualties, 552 people, died as a result of air strikes by U.S. and NATO-led forces in Afghanistan.