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Swedish Aid Group Says NATO Raided Clinic

NATO has defended the conduct of the controversial raid (file photo)
A Swedish aid organization says an Afghan health clinic it supports was raided and occupied by NATO and Afghan troops who detained staff and civilians there for three days while using the compound as a combat logistics hub.

The Swedish Committee for Afghanistan has protested to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force about the military operation from October 23 to 25 in Wardak Province. The group says ISAF officials acknowledged to them that the operation violated international law.

On December 6, the group also provided details about the incident to Sweden's ambassador to Afghanistan, Peter Semneby.

Twenty U.S. troops and 100 soldiers from the Afghan National Army were said to have entered the compound in the village of Sebak in Wardak's Chak district.

Andreas Stefansson, the country director for the aid group, told RFE/RL that soldiers landed near the clinic in helicopters during the night and immediately stormed it, destroying the compound walls and damaging facilities inside.

"They used the clinic as their detention center, bringing in -- we've been told -- up to hundreds of people from the local area for detention and interrogations," Stefansson said. "They used it as a mortar-launching area. They used it to take [a strategic combat] position, because there were apparently some battles that took place. And it became a logistics hub and their operational hub during the three days that they occupied the clinic."

Stefansson says staff couldn't work and patients couldn't seek medical care for three days. He described the operation as "a totally unacceptable breach against all established rules." Such incidents, he said, cause patients and staff to lose confidence that medical centers are a neutral zone respected by warring parties under the Geneva Conventions.

Helicopter Entry

ISAF spokesman General Gunter Katz told RFE/RL on December 7 that the troops entered the compound to take cover from insurgent gunfire.

"When they were inside they were informed that a midwife uses one of the buildings to assist in childbirth. This building was not marked as a medical facility, nor was that known by our soldiers," Katz said. "After a security sweep, our troops refrained from entering this building with this midwife, except for a single location when troops from the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) entered to guard temporarily detained persons in order to protect them from cold overnight weather."

But Stefansson says there was a large "health clinic" sign in English and Pashto with the Afghan Public Health Ministry's official logo.

"The operation was, of course, thoroughly planned well in advance. So we question whether they actually were ignorant of it being a clinic. It's in all the registers of health clinics in the country. The Public Health Ministry has had it in their registers for several years. We've been supporting it for many years," he said.

Stefansson also said NATO should have vacated the compound when troops realized it was a clinic.

"They were in such a rush when they jumped off their helicopters that they just barged into this building that they apparently didn't know was a clinic," he said. "Then they immediately realized after coming in, of course, that it is a clinic and its staff was explaining it. But they still opted to stay there for three days."

Katz told RFE/RL the decision to remain in the compound was made by the operation's commander.

"In light of the threat to ISAF and ANSF troops from outside the compound, the operation commander determined temporary use of this unoccupied building to protect the detained persons from the cold was warranted under the circumstances, according to our assessment," Katz said.

Stefansson said follow-up meetings with ISAF are planned with a senior NATO officer in Afghanistan.

"We're not going to let this go," Stefansson said. "We're going to keep the pressure up together along with other health actors to ensure that they actually improve, because repeatedly there are breaches around the country toward health facilities and hospitals."

Written by Ron Synovitz with additional reporting by Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels and Ahmad Takal in Prague.