Associated PressAfghan women attend their graduation ceremony at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Kabul, Afghanistan Monday Feb.11, 2002. The Afghan Red Crescent Society graduated its first class of women health care volunteers, a major step in a country where a quarter of all children die before the age of five and where educating women was banned under the Taliban for the past five years.

The Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Fifty-nine women graduated Monday from a health care course offered by the Afghan Red Crescent Society – a significant step for a nation where women had been banned from education under the radical Taliban regime and where medical care is sorely deficient.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s military spokesman on the Afghan war defended a deadly CIA missile strike last week in Paktia province, saying those killed “were not innocents” and that “something untoward” was going on at the time of the attack.

“These were not peasant people up there farming,” Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, the deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon briefing Monday.

An unknown number of people were killed in the Feb. 4 Hellfire missile strike by a CIA-operated Predator drone.

American officials said last week they believed that the targets were al-Qaida members, in part because of their Arab-style dress. Local authorities say the victims were ordinary Afghans with no links to terrorism.

Monday’s graduates from the Afghan Red Crescent Society’s course in basic health care are all teachers who are expected to go back to their villages or neighborhoods and teach other women health care practices such as the necessity of childhood vaccines or how to treat children suffering from diarrhea, a leading killer of children in Afghanistan.

Except for one class of 25 women taught in secret under the Taliban, the Afghan Red Crescent Society had not been allowed to train women in Afghanistan since the Taliban took power in 1996. The teacher of that class was arrested by the Taliban and threatened with prison for educating women, said Grethe Ostern of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which helped lead the seminars.

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The women – 32 in the capital of Kabul and 27 in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif – will join 10,000 male volunteers already working in the country to help in first-aid.

“We women should be able to serve our country and we should be able to help out in this time of distress,” said Yasemin Yusifzai, the newly appointed second vice president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society. She is the only woman in a leadership role in the organization. “It is time for women to step forward.”

Under the Taliban, women were barred from working except in health care. None of the teachers who attended the course was able to work until the collapse of the Taliban rule in the capital in November.

Each graduate on Monday received a certificate and a first aid kit with bandages and other supplies.

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