By Peter Kenny
GENEVA (AA) - The Finnish foreign minister and co-chair of a high-level pledging conference on Afghanistan to drive a peace process involving the Taliban called for an immediate, comprehensive, and nationwide ceasefire and protection of civilians.
"I wish to acknowledge the efforts made by all parties involved in the peace and reconciliation process over the past few months," Pekka Haavisto said at the start of the conference on Monday.
He said the EU strongly supports this process.
"Nevertheless, it is imperative that the civilians are protected from the conflict, which is ongoing.
"Therefore, an immediate, comprehensive and nationwide ceasefire is needed," said Haavisto.
Peter Maurer, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), made a similar call in a statement to coincide with the conference.
"We appeal to all parties to ensure civilians, health workers, and health facilities are protected from attacks in line with international humanitarian law," said Maurer.
"The track record of deadly attacks against civilians and the medical mission in this conflict is nothing short of shocking."
- Latest attack
On Saturday, 23 rockets hit the Afghan capital Kabul, killing eight civilians and wounding dozens.
The Taliban said it had nothing to do with the attacks.
Under a US-Taliban peace deal inked in February, the Taliban insurgents agreed to halt attacks on major cities and provincial capitals.
The aim of the two-day Geneva event, which coincides with the peace talks between the Afghanistan government and Taliban leaders in Qatar, is to determine shared development goals and commitments over the next four years.
Co-hosted by Afghanistan and Finland with the United Nations, more than 70 countries, international organizations, and agencies are expected to participate, as well as civil society representatives, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said.
Previous meetings took place in 2016 in Brussels and Tokyo in 2012, but organizers have so far avoided saying how much they would like to raise in pledges.
Haavisto noted that the protection of civilian lives, of hospitals, education facilities and humanitarian missions could not wait for the end of the peace negotiations.
"It must begin now," said the Finnish foreign minister.
- Terrorism is common threat
Mohammad Haneef Atmar, Afghanistan's foreign minister, also a conference-co-chair, said there is a growing realization based on decades of painful experience that terrorism is a common threat to the entire region and the world community.
"Peace in Afghanistan is the surest way to protect our people and our common security and economic interests against this lethal enemy."
Rula Ghani, Afghanistan's first lady, spoke about the questions many women in the country have over the peace process and a deal reached by the US and the Taliban.
"Our interlocutors in the peace negotiations, the Taliban, are not known for respecting human rights," she said.
"They ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 in an authoritarian way, issuing edicts and enforcing them through intimidation, fear and arbitrary punishments."