Fewer Afghan civilians hurt: NATO

KABUL Sat Jun 19, 2010 6:14am EDT

A U.S. soldier from Dagger Company, 2-12 Infantry, 4th Brigade patrols the town of Sundray in the Pesh Valley in Afghanistan's Kunar Province August 6, 2009. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

A U.S. soldier from Dagger Company, 2-12 Infantry, 4th Brigade patrols the town of Sundray in the Pesh Valley in Afghanistan's Kunar Province August 6, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Tim Wimborne

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KABUL (Reuters) - Despite their boosted deployment and increased losses, foreign forces have been inflicting relatively fewer Afghan civilian casualties due to more stringent rules of engagement, a top coalition spokesman said on Saturday. Winning over civilians while reinforcing and stepping up military sweeps of Taliban-held areas is a centerpiece of the strategy formed over the past year by U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan.

But with the clock ticking on planned troop pullouts, the United States and allies in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are troubled by its daily death tolls as well as Afghan losses that can reach triple figures in any given month.

Presenting data from the last three months compared to the same period in 2009, ISAF spokesman Brigadier-General Josef Blotz said there were 7.8 percent fewer clashes involving civilians, with 44.4 percent fewer killed or wounded by coalition troops.

"There is more oversight. There is better training and education," Blotz said in explanation.

"And there are of course a couple of ongoing programs, for example, in the area of escalation of force procedures, because these contacts in the past were one of the major sources, if I may say so, of civilian casualties."

Some 82 percent fewer civilians have been falling casualty to ISAF air strikes, and 52 percent fewer have been accidentally shot by coalition troops, Blotz told a press conference.

He did not give the total figures that the percentages were based on.

Asked about ISAF losses -- according to ICasualties.org, 139 have died in combat since March 18, a spiraling rate for the 9-year-old conflict -- Blotz attributed the trend mainly to the insertion of 39,000 new, mostly U.S. troops in Afghan hotspots.

"The higher number of forces leads to a higher number of confrontations and, unfortunately, to higher casualties," he said. "It has to be tougher before it gets easier, and that is the situation we are in."

He said there was no significant change to the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or small arms favored by the Taliban, but accused insurgents of turning increasingly against innocents.

"In the same period of time, the number of civilian casualties caused by the insurgency increased by 36 percent," he said. "Their activities show more and more desperation."

The Taliban are responsible for most civilian deaths in Afghanistan, but the hardline group frequently denies blame for bomb attacks against foreign or government targets that kill ordinary Afghans.

Blotz blamed the Taliban for a bombing that killed 40 people at a wedding in south Afghanistan last week, though the insurgent group denied responsibility.

(Editing by David Fox)

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