GENEVA, Switzerland - The international Red Cross said Wednesday that it would continue giving first-aid training and kits to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, despite drawing angry e-mail from around the world and criticism from an Afghan official after the practice was publicized.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it trained "over 70 members of the armed opposition" in first aid last month, along with more than 100 Afghan police and civilians, including taxi drivers.
The courses started in 2006 and the neutral group will continue them as long as they are needed, Red Cross spokesman Christian Cardon said.
"It's the core of the ICRC's mandate to make sure that people are cured whether they are from one side or the other side," he said.
Britain's Guardian newspaper Tuesday quoted an unidentified official in Kandahar's local government as criticizing the first-aid training, saying the Taliban did "not deserve to be treated like humans."
Cardon said the Red Cross also received angry e-mail from people around the world in response to the article. But he insisted that in Afghanistan most officials well understood and accepted the Red Cross' 151-year history of treating all war wounded regardless of their background or affiliation.
Cardon cited the Red Cross orthopedic hospital in Kabul, where amputees are fitted with artificial limbs.
"We never ask the people who come about their background," he said. "This is the way we work everywhere, in Afghanistan and all over the world."
As for training Taliban fighters and providing them first-aid kits, Cardon said journeys to Afghanistan's few functioning hospitals were arduous or nearly impossible, meaning even basic first aid could help save lives when medical help isn't available.
He added that the three-day course was also an opportunity to show participants the need to abide by the Geneva Conventions governing the conduct of war.
The conventions also are the reason U.S. military medical helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan rescue wounded insurgents as well as U.S. and NATO soldiers and rush them to field hospitals.
Red Cross first-aid courses also have been held in Gaza with members of Hamas and other Palestinian groups, Cardon said.
Andrea Bianchi, a professor of international law at Geneva's Graduate Institute, said the Red Cross was not obliged to provide training and medical kits to the Taliban but appeared to be doing so for practical reasons.
"Afghanistan is a very difficult place to operate," he said. "The idea that the ICRC might offer first-aid kits doesn't shock me, honestly."