Thousands of people have been forced to leave their homes and seek refuge in different parts of Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan, as a US military operation in and around Garmsir District against Taliban insurgents gets under way, provincial officials said.
“Our preliminary reports indicate that more than 1,000 families [5,000-7,000 people] have left the area and more people are moving out,” Assadullah Mayar, president of the provincial department of the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS), told IRIN from the provincial capital, Lashkargah, on 1 May.
Capt Kelly Frushour, a US military spokeswoman in Kabul, said “groups of women and children” were moving out of the conflict area.
“We’ve not seen an exodus or a large migration, but we’ve seen groups of women and children moving to the south,” Frushour said, adding that civilians had not been displaced in areas where US forces had established a presence.
“It’s also unclear whether these people are moving because of our military operation,” she said.
“Civilians might have left the conflict area because Taliban insurgents always use them as human shields,” said Carlos Branco, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul.
Provincial officials said civilians had been notified before the military operation started on 28 April and were advised to temporarily leave the area. However, several local people denied receiving any information before the planned operation.
“In urgent need”
Some displaced families have sought refuge in neighbouring Nawa, Righestan and Khan Nishin districts, while others have headed towards Lashkargah, the ARCS said.
“They are in urgent need of assistance,” said Mayar, adding that the ARCS was trying to ascertain how to help needy families. Food, drinking water and tents are the critical needs most displaced people have, he added.
The US military said humanitarian relief was not part of the military operation, but a few wounded civilians had received treatment at their medical facility.
Reports of civilian casualties could not be immediately verified due to access restrictions and conflicting figures given by local people and provincial officials.
ISAF said 7,700 UK soldiers were currently operating in Helmand Province, and Capt Frushour said about 2,400 US marines had recently been sent to the volatile province - widely described as a hotbed of the Taliban insurgency - to defeat the insurgents and improve security.
Thousands of people have reportedly died and tens of thousands been forced out of their homes due to fighting in Helmand Province over the past few years. The conflict has also impeded humanitarian and development activities which have worsened poverty in province, said aid agencies.