Afghan hunger strikers protesting for peace taken to hospital


Lashkar Gah (Afghanistan) (AFP)

Several hunger strikers taking part in a rare sit-in peace protest in Afghanistan's restive south have been taken to hospital for treatment, officials and protesters said Saturday.

The week-long demonstration in Lashkar Gah, which has involved up to several dozen men, women and children, began the day after a car bomb attack rocked the city on March 23, killing at least 13 people and wounding dozens more.

Some of the protesters began a hunger strike on Thursday after their demands for a ceasefire between Afghan security forces and the Taliban were not met.

Four were taken to hospital for treatment on Friday night, including two who were "in a terrible condition", Helmand provincial public health director Aminullah Abed told AFP.

Two men wearing oxygen masks and hooked up to saline drips were seen lying in their hospital beds when an AFP photographer visited on Saturday.

"I was unconscious when I was brought to the hospital otherwise I didn't want this saline drip," Qais Hashemi, 27, said.

"If they save my life today, tomorrow I will die in a suicide attack."

Another hunger striker still at the sit-in protest lay on the ground attached to a saline drip on Saturday. He was surrounded by men and children holding signs reading "Without peace it is impossible to live".

Iqbal Khaibar, one of the organisers, said around 50 people had joined the hunger strike.

"As long as our demands are not met we will continue," Khaibar said.

The protesters, including civil society activists and relatives of victims killed in violence, had planned to march more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) to Taliban strongholds in the province and try to convince the militants to stop fighting.

But the Taliban has told them to take their protest to US military bases -- and warned it would not be responsible for their safety.

"Demand that they put an end to the ongoing war and occupation," the Taliban said in a WhatsApp message to journalists.

"If something were to happen then responsibility will be placed squarely on your shoulders because you understand that we are at war."

The withdrawal of US-led NATO combat troops at the end of 2014 enabled the Taliban to regain control of opium poppy-rich Helmand which has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the 16-year war.

Much of it remains controlled or contested by the militants.

The sit-in protest comes amid growing calls for the Taliban to take up President Ashraf Ghani's offer last month of peace talks. His proposal received renewed international support at a conference in the Uzbek capital Tashkent on Tuesday.

So far the Taliban have not directly responded to the offer.