GENEVA (Reuters) - Hospitals, health care workers and ambulances are increasingly targeted in conflicts from Libya to Somalia, depriving millions of sick and wounded of treatment, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Wednesday.
The independent aid agency, which delivers vital supplies and collects the wounded and dead from battlefields, called for a halt to deadly assaults on medical facilities and personnel.
"Hospitals in Sri Lanka and Somalia have been shelled, ambulances in Libya shot at, paramedics in Colombia killed and wounded people in Afghanistan forced to languish for hours in vehicles held up at checkpoints," Yves Daccord, ICRC director-general, said in a statement.
The ICRC has documented security incidents in 16 countries that disrupted delivery of health care, many of them deliberate attacks violating international humanitarian law, according to its report "Health Care in Danger: Making the Case."
"The most shocking finding is that people die in large numbers not because they are direct victims of a roadside bomb or a shooting," said Dr. Robin Coupland, who led the research.
"They die because the ambulance does not get there in time, because health personnel are prevented from doing their work, because hospitals are themselves targets of attacks or simply because the environment is too dangerous for effective health care to be delivered," said the British war surgeon.
The violence, often accompanied by looting, means doctors and nurses leave their jobs, hospitals run out of drugs or fuel to run generators and vaccination campaigns grind to a halt.
This leaves patients even more vulnerable to diseases which can break out in conflict areas, such as polio and cholera. In Libya, a healthcare system that relied on foreign workers was crippled when the civil war prompted an exodus, leaving hospitals in Misrata and Benghazi critically understaffed.
CIVILIANS CAUGHT IN CROSSFIRE
Under the Geneva Conventions, the wounded and sick, whether civilians or combatants, must receive prompt medical treatment.
Yet many armies and rebels flout humanitarian law, according to the ICRC, which is launching a four-year awareness campaign.
"In conflicts all over the world, combatants overlook their responsibility to care for civilians caught in the crossfire. Invariably, it is relatives and neighbors who bring civilian casualties to hospital," it said.
Hospitals have been used to store weapons or launch attacks, contravening the principle that they should be neutral and provide care to all patients, the report said.
Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Somalia have suffered some of the worst attacks against medical centers and staff, it said.
Somalia, now reeling from famine in the south, lost only the second batch of medical graduates in 20 years when a suicide bomber blew himself up at a university ceremony in Mogadishu in December 2009, killing 22.
In a particularly outrageous attack in Afghanistan, Taliban insurgents in the southern city of Kandahar used an ambulance packed with explosives last April to kill 12 people at a police training base, the ICRC said.
The Arab Spring has brought fresh abuses, according to the ICRC, whose officials run mobile clinics, perform war surgery and negotiate safe passage for ambulances through checkpoints.
In Bahrain, the tiny Sunni-ruled Gulf state which crushed pro-democracy protests in February, the military took over Salmaniya hospital in Manama "after it was perceived to support the cause of anti-government protesters," the report said.
Some 47 doctors and nurses who treated injured protesters mostly from the majority Shi'ite community were detained in "sweeping arrests of health workers," it said. Some face trial in a military court.
The ICRC said it had reports from Libya suggesting that Ajdabiyah hospital was "used as cover for snipers," a violation of the hospital's protected status. It gave no details.
"In Libya, the ICRC is also receiving allegations of the misuse of the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems to support military operations and the use of ambulances to transport arms and armed combatants," it added.