Unicef 'quite optimistic' after Taleban comments on girls' education, official says

Taleban officials cited their early expressions of support for girls' education. PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA (REUTERS) - The chief of field operations of the UN children's agency expressed cautious optimism about working with Taleban officials following their seizure of power in Afghanistan, citing their early expressions of support for girls' education.

The UN children's agency (Unicef) is still delivering aid to most parts of the country and has held initial meetings with new Taleban representatives in recently seized cities like Kandahar, Herat and Jalalabad.

"We have ongoing discussions, we are quite optimistic based on those discussions," Unicef's chief of field operations in Afghanistan, Mr Mustapha Ben Messaoud, told a UN briefing, adding that 11 out of 13 field offices were currently operational. "We have not a single issue with the Taleban in those field offices."

The Taleban ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 following strict Islamic law, forbidding women from working.

Girls were not allowed to attend school and women had to cover their faces and be accompanied by a male relative if they wanted to venture out of their homes.

UN chief Antonio Guterres warned on Monday of "chilling"curbs on human rights under the Taleban and mounting violations against women and girls and a UN official warned on Tuesday that thousands of Afghan rights workers were at risk.

Unicef cited some Taleban local representatives as saying they were waiting for guidance from their leaders on the issue of educating girls, while others have said they want schools "up and running".

One Taleban health director in Herat where Unicef is the only UN agency present had also asked female employees to report to duty, Mr Ben Messaoud said. Unicef had not yet established a direct communication with the Taleban in the capital Kabul, he added.

Mr Rupert Colville, spokesman for Ms Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the worries of many Afghans about the Taleban were "thoroughly understandable".

"We call on the Taleban to demonstrate through their actions, not just their words, that the fears for the safety of so many people from so many different walks of life are addressed," he said.

Unlike many countries which are scrambling to evacuate their diplomats from the country, the United Nations does not plan staff evacuations and is appealing for additional aid for its operations amid warnings of growing humanitarian needs.

However, UN dealings with the Taleban, designated by its Security Council as a terrorist organisation, may raise questions among donors.

More than half a million people have been displaced within the country since the beginning of the year with UN agencies warning of a "humanitarian catastrophe" as hunger spreads.

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