Red Cross says first aid courses for Taliban are part of its humanitarian mandate

GENEVA (AP) — The international Red Cross said Wednesday it would continue giving first aid training and kits to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, despite drawing angry e-mails from around the world and criticism from an Afghan official after the practice was publicized.

The International Committee of the Red Cross trained "over 70 members of the armed opposition" in first aid last month, along with more than 100 Afghan police and civilians, including taxi drivers.

The courses started in 2006 and the neutral group will continue as long as they are needed, said Red Cross spokesman Christian Cardon.

"It's the core of the ICRC's mandate to make sure that people are cured whether they are from one side or the other side," he told The Associated Press.

Britain's Guardian newspaper on Tuesday quoted an unidentified official in Kandahar's local government as criticizing the first aid training, saying the Taliban did "not deserve to be treated like humans."

Cardon said the Red Cross also received angry e-mails from people around the world in response to the article. But he insisted that in Afghanistan most officials well understood and accepted the group's 151-year history of treating all war wounded regardless of their background or affiliation.

Cardon cited the Red Cross orthopedic hospital in Kabul where amputees are fitted with artificial limbs.

"We never ask the people who come about their background," he said. "This is the way we work everywhere in Afghanistan and all over the world."

As for training Taliban fighters and providing them with first aid kits, Cardon said journeys to Afghanistan's few functioning hospitals were often arduous or nearly impossible, meaning even basic first aid could help save lives when medical help isn't available.

He added that the three-day courses also were an opportunity to show participants the need to abide by the Geneva Conventions that govern the conduct of war.

The conventions also are the reason that U.S. military medical helicopters rescue insurgents as well as U.S. and NATO soldiers when they are called to battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan to pick up the wounded and rush them to field hospitals.

Red Cross first aid courses also have been held in Gaza with members of Hamas and other Palestinian groups, said Cardon.

Andrea Bianchi, a professor of international law at Geneva's Graduate Institute, said the Red Cross wasn't obliged to provide training and medical kits to the Taliban but appeared to have chosen to do so for practical reasons.

"Afghanistan is a very difficult place to operate," he said. "The idea that the ICRC might offer first aid kits doesn't shock me honestly."

"They stick to this idea that they are impartial and neutral, which means they must provide aid in whatever form is needed to improve the condition of the injured," said Bianchi. "Neutrality means you cannot take sides even in a situation in which it is clear who the bad guys are and who's on the right side."

Cardon, the Red Cross spokesman in Geneva, said the criticism recalled the period after Sept. 11, 2001, when the group was inundated with angry messages because it visited prisoners held at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

If Afghan officials were to complain to the Red Cross about the first aid training for Taliban fighters "we will go and meet them to clarify that it's the way we have always worked and always will work," he said.

"We are quite confident that it (the report) will not affect our operations."