LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan, Sep 21 (Reuters) Afghan health officials said today they had brokered a deal with Taliban leaders to allow the immunisation of children in rebel-held areas in a rare sign of cooperation between the warring sides.
The deal was made as part of a programme by UNICEF to vaccinate more than a million Afghan children against polio after a recent outbreak of the debilitating viral infection that has been eliminated from all but four countries in the world.
The Taliban insurgency against the Afghan government and its mainly Western allies has hampered the construction of hospitals and clinics after 30 years of war and prevented health workers reaching many of the sick and injured.
But even as fighting raged in the most violent southern province of Helmand, government health officials in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah decided to try to help children on both sides of the frontlines and extend their polio vaccination programme to the rebel-held town of Musa Qala.
''We approached elders and tribal leaders and went to Pakistan to get a religious ruling from a mullah, but still the Taliban refused to allow us to conduct immunisations,'' said Dr Enayatullah, Helmand director of public health.
Then they hit on the idea of contacting the only medical professional they knew on the Taliban side -- Mullah Ahmad who used to run a 400-bed emergency hospital under the Taliban.
He then persuaded the Taliban governor of Musa Qala.
''Before we couldn't vaccinate because of just one or two people in charge,'' Dr Enayatullah told a meeting with UN workers. ''When they changed their minds, it all became possible.'' HOPE FOR PEACE Other health workers in Lashkar Gah also contacted the medical Mullah Ahmad to use his influence to overturn a threat by one Taliban commander to burn down a clinic in government-held territory because male doctors there had helped women give birth.
Helmand, a long fertile river valley etching its way through parched barren desert, has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in Afghanistan since the Taliban rebounded from their 2001 defeat and resumed large-scale attacks two years ago.
The UNICEF vaccination programme was aimed to coincide with United Nations peace day, but came as mainly British troops launched a major offensive between Musa Qala and Lashkar Gah.
Musa Qala was the scene of intense fighting last year between British forces holed up in the town and besieging Taliban fighters until British troops pulled out in a deal under which tribal elders took control and agreed to keep the Taliban out.
But in February the rebels moved in and have set up a shadow fiefdom with their own administrators, courts and officials.
United Nations officials and international health workers hope the deal with the Taliban might be a first step to peace.
''I hope these vaccination campaigns will continue to be used as a bridge towards peace,'' said Arshad Quddus, a medical officer with the World Health Organisation.
REUTERS GT BD2141