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UN Worried About Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan - 2001-10-25

United Nations officials say they are concerned about the possibility of civilians being killed in large numbers, as territory changes hands between warring factions in Afghanistan.

Earlier this year, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said Taleban fighters massacred more than 300 civilians who belonged to the ethnic Hazara, Shiite Muslim group, in Afghanistans central Yakaolang district.

Citing eyewitnesses, Human Rights Watch officials say the victims were assembled at several locations in Yakaolang and shot by firing squads - to discourage the local population from supporting the anti-Taleban Northern Alliance.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan called the reports of civilian massacres by Taleban troops in Yakaolang credible.

Taleban authorities denied the killings, accusing human rights groups of ignoring atrocities against their supporters near the central city of Bamiyan, after opposition Northern Alliance forces earlier recaptured the city.

Now, as fighting between the Taleban and the Northern Alliance is increasing, U.N. officials are saying they are worried about more civilian massacres as territory changes hands in the fighting. The U.N.'s special reporter on Human Rights for Afghanistan Kamal Hassain, a former Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, says anyone who deliberately kills civilians will be held accountable. "I would really like to underline that I think that we should get the message out to those who are engaged in these situations that these kinds of massacres are a breach of international humanitarian law and that although immunity has been enjoyed in the past, that in a way has allowed such massacres to take place with impunity for those who have been responsible, this time that anyone responsible for any massacre or for any breach of humanitarian law will have to account for the breaches of law they have committed," he said.

Mr. Hassain says international humanitarian law also applies to the coalition now fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, and that maximum care must be taken to avoid civilian casualties and damage to non-combatants.

Mr. Hassain says he believes the United Nations will have to come up with measures to protect the lives and property of civilians inside Afghanistan, but he says the best protection against human rights abuses in Afghanistan will be a broad-based government that represents all of Afghanistan's people.