Page last updated at 17:08 GMT, Thursday, 22 January 2009

Taleban patients 'upset troops'

By Caroline Wyatt
Defence correspondent, BBC News

Lt Col Ali Hofman: 'We only have one emergency department'

British soldiers say they are unhappy injured colleagues are being treated on the same ward as Taleban militants at an Afghanistan field hospital.

Personnel at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province told the BBC they should not be forced to share wards.

The Ministry of Defence said that it was standard practice for all patients to be treated together in conflicts.

The MoD's surgeon-general, Lt Gen Louis Lillywhite, said there were no plans to change the existing policy.

One serving soldier who got in touch with the BBC said: "My friends who were injured were waking up in the hospital to find Taleban in the bed next to them.

"A lot of people are getting injured out there, and the last thing they want to see when they come round is the Taleban on the same ward. It's just not right."

Another told the BBC: "I'm appalled that Taleban are being treated in the same room at the hospital. I know we have to treat them under the Geneva Convention, but no one should have to wake up in the same place as someone who may have injured them or their mates."

Lt Gen Lillywhite, said that it had long been military medical practice for all patients to be treated together during conflicts.

Afghan civilians, British Armed Forces and enemy combatants would continue to be treated on the same ward at Camp Bastion, he added.

"When people first come in they're usually extremely seriously injured and the number of very critical beds that are available to treat them are very limited," he said in an interview with the BBC.

GENEVA CONVENTION: Article 30
Every camp shall have an adequate infirmary where prisoners of war may have the attention they require, as well as appropriate diet
Isolation wards shall, if necessary, be set aside for cases of contagious or mental disease
Prisoners of war suffering from serious disease, or whose condition necessitates special treatment, must be admitted to any military or civilian medical unit where such treatment can be given, even if their repatriation is contemplated in the near future

"So they could well wake up to find - lying in the next bed to them - a critically injured enemy combatant.

"It is the only way we can do it and it's the only way we've ever done it.

"I see our injured; I've seen them in Camp Bastion. I see them back at Selly Oak, and indeed I see them later when they're at Headley Court.

"On every occasion I ask them whether there are any issues that have troubled them and I then address those.

"No one has ever complained to me about being treated in a hospital where there is the Taleban. I've not had any complaints so far."

He says that as soon as an injured Taleban patient begins to recover, they are placed in an area of the ward where they can be screened off.

"This is to give them privacy as well, and they will require interpreters and guarding," he said. "That is the way it is. Only if the casualty rates were to grow to an extent that will not happen would we envisage making special facilities available for injured prisoners of war."

Under the terms of the Geneva Convention, all Armed Forces have a duty of care towards injured prisoners of war, to offer them the same level of treatment as their own forces, and during the Second World War, it was not uncommon for POWs to be treated on the same wards as injured British forces.

But the convention does not say they have to be treated on the same ward.

At the field hospital at Camp Bastion, its Commanding Officer, Lt-Cdr Alison Hofman, also defended the practice.

"We're very sensitive to the feelings and requirements of our UK personnel and we do ensure that all our detainees are nursed behind screens and they're also guarded all times to protect everyone working at the facility and other patients," she told the BBC.

Ministry of Defence's surgeon-general, Lt Gen Louis Lillywhite
Surgeon-general Lt Gen Louis Lillywhite defends the policy

British forces have been in Afghanistan since 2001.

However, the number of injured service-people needing treatment rose substantially after British forces went into Helmand Province to take on the Taleban there in 2006.

In all, 141 British servicemen and one British servicewoman have died during the campaign since 2001.

Considerably more have suffered injuries, such as loss of limbs or hearing loss, while others have suffered psychological trauma from the high level of combat on the front-line forward operating and patrol bases in Helmand Province.

The head of the British Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, called earlier this week for a re-organised, larger Army to help it cope with the current strains put on military families by deployments abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past years.

General Dannatt - known for his outspokenness over the Military Covenant - also said that public support for the Army had made a big difference, and was much appreciated by those serving their country in the Armed Forces.

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