UN says Afghan health workers facing deliberate attacks

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FILE – In this May 12, 2020, file photo, Afghan security officers stand in front of a maternity hospital, in Kabul, Afghanistan. The United Nations on Sunday, June 21, 2020 released a special report expressing concerns over what it called recent “deliberate attacks” against healthcare workers and facilities in Afghanistan during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The United Nations on Sunday released a special report expressing concerns over what it called recent “deliberate attacks” against health care workers and facilities in Afghanistan during the coronavirus pandemic.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, or UNAMA, said it had documented 12 deliberate acts of violence between March 11 to May 23, and that these attacks constitute war crimes.

The report said eight of the attacks were carried out by Taliban insurgents, while three were attributed to Afghan security forces. The most horrific attack, on a maternity ward at a Kabul hospital that killed 24 people last month, remains unsolved. The United States has said the attack bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State group’s affiliate in Afghanistan, which is fighting both the Taliban and the Kabul government.

“At a time when an urgent humanitarian response was required to protect every life in Afghanistan, both the Taliban and Afghan national security forces carried out deliberate acts of violence that undermined health care operations,” said Deborah Lyons, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, and head of UNAMA. “There is no excuse for such actions; the safety and well-being of the civilian population must be a priority.”

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied the U.N. report’s findings, saying, “We do not consider these allegations and reports to be accurate.” Sunday’s statement said Taliban militants had not attacked any health facilities and claimed they have instead protected them.

Afghan government officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

Afghanistan has 28,833 confirmed coronavirus cases with 581 deaths, although international aid organizations monitoring the country’s outbreak say the numbers are much higher because of a lack of access and testing capabilities.

Following the May 12 attack on the Kabul maternity hospital, Doctors Without Borders decided last week to end its operations in Kabul. The international charity, also known by its French acronym MSF, said it would keep its other programs in Afghanistan running, but did not go into details.

The attack at the maternity hospital killed two infants as well as several young mothers as well as nurses, and set off an hours-long shootout with Afghan police. The hospital in Dashti Barchi, a mostly Shiite neighborhood, was the Geneva-based group’s only project in the Afghan capital. The U.S. has said the attack targeted the country’s minority Shiites in a neighborhood of Kabul that the Islamic State group has repeatedly attacked in the past. The Taliban promptly denied involvement.

The U.N. report emphasized that deliberate acts of violence against health care facilities, including hospitals and related personnel, are prohibited under international humanitarian law and constitute war crimes.

“Perpetrating targeted attacks on healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when health resources are already stretched and of critical importance to the civilian population, is particularly reprehensible,” said Fiona Frazer, UNAMA Chief of Human Rights.

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