IRC Team Caught in the Crossfire of Gardez Battle
International Rescue Committee staff in Gardez, east of Kabul, have spent a nightmare 24 hours trapped in the crossfire of Afghanistan’s most serious flare-up since the fall of the Taliban. The situation calmed late today, and IRC’s staff members were able to escape to safety.
The fighting broke out Wednesday between forces of the newly-nominated provincial governor, Badsha Khan, and supporters of the old shura, or council of elders, which controlled Paktia province after the Taliban departed in November.
Both sides were targeting the center of the town, where the IRC’s local humanitarian aid office is based. While tanks and heavy artillery shelled rival positions outside, 13 Afghan staff members huddled inside the IRC compound. On several occasions Badsha Khan’s troops tried to move their weapons into the IRC office, but the staff successfully dissuaded them from using the building as a base for attacks.
"Instead the troops set up outposts on corners of our building, which in turn became a target for opposition fire," said Haneef Atmar, the IRC’s deputy director for Afghanistan. "Bullets hit the walls, shells exploded within the compound, and a rocket landed nearby. A man was killed just outside the office."
Thursday morning the artillery and tank fire intensified and spread to other areas of the city. "It appeared to be Badsha Khan’s final push," Atmar said. By mid-afternoon, his gunmen were on the move – providing IRC staff the opportunity to leave their battered compound and move to a safer area.
Unconfirmed reports indicate that several dozen civilians and some 35 fighters from both sides were killed.
Gardez serves as the IRC’s base in Paktia province for distributions of food and emergency supplies for displaced Afghans.
Elsewhere in eastern Afghanistan, the IRC is also delivering critical food and non-food supplies, providing agriculture assistance, supporting home schools and community-based classes for children, working in irrigation and water system reconstruction, assisting primary health care clinics and maternal care centers, and providing vocational training in such areas as metal work and livestock farming.