(New York) -- Attacks on humanitarian relief agencies in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan are increasing and must be stopped, Human Rights Watch said today, in releasing details of several attacks.

Human Rights Watch strongly urged all military forces in Afghanistan to ensure the safety of representatives and assets of humanitarian relief agencies.

On October 16, Taliban soldiers reportedly seized food warehouses of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) in Kabul and Kandahar, taking control of some 7,000 tons of food.

"The Taliban and other armed elements are carrying out widespread attacks on humanitarian workers in Afghanistan, and stealing their equipment, supplies, and vehicles," said Sidney Jones, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "These assaults directly affect the ability of humanitarian agencies to provide relief to a desperate civilian population."

Human Rights Watch said it had received credible reports of such attacks from the Taliban-controlled cities of Kandahar, Kabul, Jalalabad, and Mazar-i Sharif. While most of those responsible for the attacks appear to be Taliban fighters, non-Afghan fighters (known in Afghanistan as "foreign guests") and rogue armed elements have also been involved.

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about the bombardment by U.S. forces of two clearly-marked warehouses of the International Committee of the Red Cross in broad daylight on October 16.

The attacks carried out by the Taliban and other armed elements against humanitarian aid agencies include the following:

  • On the morning of October 7, armed Taliban entered the compound of a mine action NGO in Kabul. Staff members were beaten, and the Taliban broke some of the locks on vehicles, but did not take them.
  • On October 8, armed Taliban entered the compound of the U.N. Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in Mazar-i Sharif and looted communications equipment. The Taliban destroyed the windows of nine U.N. vehicles at the compound before leaving.
  • On October 8, armed Taliban entered the compound of a mine action NGO in Kandahar and demanded vehicles. Staff who resisted were beaten and ordered to leave the compound. The Taliban left with seven ambulances, seven pick-up trucks and six cargo trucks from the compound.
  • Another demining agency working in Kandahar told Human Rights Watch that they had one vehicle confiscated by Taliban forces on September 26; three ambulances confiscated by Taliban on October 3; nine pick-up trucks confiscated by Taliban on October 11; and twenty-two additional vehicles taken by Taliban on October 15. The Taliban also looted the office of the demining agency, taking spare parts, generators, radios, and the personal assets of the demining workers. Staff who resisted the confiscations were reportedly beaten. None of the vehicles have been returned.
  • On October 13, a group of some twenty armed men entered the Kandahar offices of the Islamic Relief Organization, demanding vehicles at gunpoint. Taliban security forces intervened, and a clash erupted. One vehicle was taken from the compound by the unidentified armed men.
  • On October 15, armed men entered the Mazar-i Sharif offices of a demining agency. Officials of the agency told Human Rights Watch: "They beat our guards [and] after that they broke the locks of the doors and entered into the office. They looted all the office equipment and left nothing behind in the office. The looted property includes three vehicles, computers, communication facilities, office equipment and utensils." The officials said their offices in other cities had been threatened and told that if they don't hand over all the vehicles and communication systems, the Taliban will take them by force.
  • On the night of October 15, armed men entered the compound of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), beating two guards and looting the office. The same forces returned to the IOM compound on the morning of October 16 and removed three vehicles from the compound.
  • The Kandahar and Mazar-i Sharif offices of Medecins sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) were looted on October 15 by unidentified armed men.

In addition to these cases, a number of humanitarian relief groups have reported incidents in which vehicles were seized at gunpoint by Taliban forces.

Human Rights Watch today also called on the U.S.-led military alliance to take all feasible steps to minimize injury to civilians and civilian objects as required by international humanitarian law in its air campaign over Afghanistan. International humanitarian law also obliges belligerents to respect the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems.

At about 1:00 p.m. on October 16, several U.S. bombs directly hit two warehouses of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) located two kilometers from the Kabul airport. One ICRC employee was wounded during the incident, and one of the warehouses burned down completely while the other sustained serious damage. The ICRC buildings were clearly marked with a red cross painted on a white background, visible from the air. The U.S. has acknowledged responsibility for the bombing of the ICRC warehouses, claiming that it had mistakenly believed that the buildings were military storehouses.

Humanitarian relief agencies have been hit in air strikes on at least two other occasions, but there is no evidence that the agency facilities were the intended targets. At about 9 p.m. on October 8, the Kabul compound of the U.N.-affiliated demining agency Afghan Technical Consultants (ATC) was struck in the course of a U.S. air attack, completely destroying the compound and killing four ATC staff members guarding the building and wounding four other staff.

On another occasion on October 15, shrapnel from U.S. bombs landing at the Kabul airport wounded an employee of the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) who was loading grain bags at a WFP warehouse located nearby. The incident halted what would have been the first OXFAM food delivery into the famine-stricken Hazarajat district of Afghanistan since September 11.