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The International Committee of the Red Cross is increasing its surgical support and other medical services in Afghanistan to help ease the plight of large numbers of civilians, many in isolated rural areas, caught up in the spreading of hostilities across more than half the country.
“The civilian population is paying a high price, and we are seeing a lot casualties in ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] supported hospitals such as Mirwais in Kandahar,” said Reto Stocker, head of the committee's delegation in Afghanistan.
During the first six months of this year hospitals assisted by the Red Cross performed about 9000 operations and provided medical services to 17700 inpatients and 86000 outpatients.
Mr Stocker said that because of the deteriorating situation and greater need for help, including medical services and equipment, he was trying to secure a 30% increase in the committee's funding for activities in Afghanistan in 2008, from SFr45m (£19m; €27m; $38m) to SFr60m, and a similar increase in the number of staff working in the country.
He said that because of worsened security “the humanitarian space is clearly shrinking,” making access to parts of the country difficult.
However, he said that the agency is boosting aid in many provinces through volunteers for the Afghan Red Crescent Society.
“We are in a very fortunate situation to be working very closely with the ARCS [Afghan Red Crescent Society] and its 20000 volunteers, who are by definition living in conflict areas today,” Mr Stocker said at a news conference.
Between January and June the Red Cross had provided “more than 6000 first aid kits to 5500 ARCS volunteers” and had also provided financial support and supervision to eight ARCS clinics in the east and south of the country, which provided, among other services, 40000 consultations, he said.
Many of the Red Crescent volunteers, Mr Stocker noted, “are people who have lived in a certain area which is today no longer under the control of the government but under the influence or clear control of the armed opposition, but [they] continue to be there and deliver services, such as basic first aid.”
He said that the Red Cross was in the process of setting up first aid posts catering for fresh casualties whose injuries can be stabilised in the areas affected by conflict and who can then be brought to hospitals supported by the Red Cross.
Mr Stocker said that the number of people being displaced by conflict was increasing and that there were also “significant increases” in the number of casualties resulting from aerial bombardments and suicide attacks.
He described the situation on the ground, especially in the country's southern areas, where fighting had been most fierce, “as a humanitarian emergency.”
Basic services, he said, were no longer being provided in rural areas, and the degree of conflict inhibited the “rolling out of humanitarian services in most conflict affected areas.”
He said, “It is access to medical care particularly which has become very, very problematic, with humanitarian organisations facing increasing problems to deliver those services and the state, of course, also finding it very difficult to roll out medical care, secondary and primary, in large parts of Afghanistan's south today.”
Mr Stocker, who is based in Kabul, said that the committee was also constantly training surgeons in hospitals run by the Red Cross and was also conducting seminars in surgery in war situations.
Moreover, he said, another important part of the committee's activities in Afghanistan was its six orthopaedic centres, which serve 65000 people, most of whom have had limbs amputated after injuries received from mines or unexploded ordinances.
From January to June these centres registered more than 2700 new patients, made about 5900 prostheses and orthoses, and provided about 74700 sessions of physiotherapy, the committee said.