Children safer in Afghan cities than NYC: NATO envoy

Comments made by NATO's top civilian envoy to Afghanistan have been rejected as misleading by leading children's aid organisation.

KABUL // Children are probably safer growing up in Afghanistan's major cities, including the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, than in London, New York, or Glasgow, NATO's top civilian envoy to Afghanistan has said.

Mark Sedwill's comments were made during an interview to be aired on Monday on Children's BBC Newsround, a popular British daily current affairs programme aimed at children.

Children living in the Afghan capital Kabul had told the show's presenter they felt unsafe on the streets because of the risk of bombs. But Sedwill dismissed their fears.

"Here and in Kabul and the other big cities, actually, there are very few of those bombs," he said.

"The children are probably safer here than they would be in London, New York or Glasgow or many other cities," he said, according to comments released by CBBC before the show was aired.

"It's a very family-orientated society, so it is a little bit like a city of villages," he said.

His remarks, which will feature in a two-part series exploring the lives of children in Afghanistan, were rejected as misleading by an expert from the aid group Save the Children.

"One in five children die before they get to the age of five. So to say it's safer to live in London, New York or Glasgow is daft," said a representative from Save the Children, who requested anonymity so he could speak freely.

"Sedwill's overall message that life is village-like gives a sense of comfort or of a safe environment. It is not like that in Afghanistan, it is dangerous for children, it's an insecure place."

UN figures show Afghan children are often the victims of a worsening conflict, with 1,795 children killed or injured as a result of the war from September 2008 to August 2010.

Violence across Afghanistan is at its worst since the Taliban were overthrown by US-backed Afghan forces in late 2001, with civilian and military casualties at record levels.

A report from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in November 2009 said Afghanistan was the most dangerous country to be born in. It has the highest infant mortality rate in the world and two-thirds of the population lacks access to clean water.

Forty-three percent of the country was virtually off-limits to aid agencies due to poor security, the UNICEF report said, making it difficult to carry out health campaigns for children.

Another UN report on Afghanistan in September said "children and women are increasingly bearing the brunt of the conflict". Casualties among women increased 6 percent, while those among children jumped by 55 per cent, the report said.

A total of 74 children were killed in the first half of the year by homemade bombs or in suicide attacks, an increase of 155 percent for the same period in 2009.

While insurgents normally target foreign and Afghan forces, civilians are often caught up in the attacks as bystanders.

Last month, at least nine people, including eight children, were killed when a school bus carrying female students was hit by a roadside bomb in Nimroz province in southwestern Afghanistan.

Kabul has been relatively quiet over the past three months but two bombings targeting the Indian embassy in 2008 and 2009 killed around 75 people, including children.

Girls have had acid thrown in their faces while walking to school by hardline Islamists who object to female education, which was banned under Taliban rule.

Several girls' schools, including some in Kabul, have been hit by mysterious gas poisonings blamed on Islamists.

Some children, especially those from wealthier families, are also kidnapped for ransom. Such kidnappings often go unreported and children have been killed if ransoms were not paid.