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Red Cross chief resigns

International Committee of the Red Cross President Jakob Kellenberger resigns after 12 years at helm

Red Cross

GENEVA - He struck a unique deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, fought what he viewed as excesses in the U.S. "war on terror", compiled reports that exposed U.S. mistreatment of detainees in Iraq, and fought for inmates' rights at Guantanamo.

Jakob Kellenberger, who describes himself as "the negotiator of last resort", steps down on Friday after 12 years as president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The independent aid agency's 12,500 staff perform frontline humanitarian operations, delivering food and medical care in war zones from Syria to Somalia.

Kellenberger's tenure was marked by conflicts triggered by the Sept 11, 2001 attacks and U.S. efforts to capture or kill al Qaeda militants abroad, including by drone attacks. It ends with the prospect of Syria descending into full-blown civil war.

"When I look back, it was a very central issue, the whole issue of what the (President George) Bush administration called the global war on terror," Kellenberger, 67, said in an interview in his office in the ICRC's Geneva headquarters.

"The basic balance between military necessity and humanity and respect for human dignity was broken in some places and in other places it was in serious danger. I had really the feeling that you had to fight against this from the start," he said.

Noting that many of his files relate to fighting in Afghanistan and the Middle East, he added: "It's almost a bit symbolic that it ends with this region, with Syria, but before it was Lebanon, Israel, the (Palestinian) territories."

The Bush administration, which invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 and Iraq in March 2003, openly questioned the relevance of the Geneva Conventions to al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, a challenge to the ICRC which is the guardian of the 1949 rules of war that aim to protect civilians and prisoners of war.

In Afghanistan, the ICRC quickly gained access to visit U.S.-held detainees in Kandahar and Bagram, and to those sent to the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba, without being charged.

Its confidential reports on U.S. mistreatment of detainees in Iraq, including at Abu Ghraib, appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 2004, sparking an international outcry.

"It was very difficult for us, it was a typical dilemma of confidential issues. What came out after in photos, what became public, was in fact already part of the ICRC reports from visits to Abu Ghraib to the end of 2003 but were confidential reports, for U.S. authorities and nobody else," he said.

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