U.N. report says Afghan civilian toll up 31 percent

KABUL Tue Aug 10, 2010 10:05pm EDT

Afghan Army troops conduct a joint patrol with soldiers from the Canadian Army's 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group, through the village of Bazaar e Panjwaii, in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar province August 10, 2010. REUTERS/Bob Strong

Afghan Army troops conduct a joint patrol with soldiers from the Canadian Army's 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group, through the village of Bazaar e Panjwaii, in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar province August 10, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Bob Strong

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KABUL (Reuters) - Civilian casualties in the Afghan conflict have risen by 31 percent in the first half of 2010, U.N. officials said on Tuesday, blaming insurgents for most of them.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in its mid-year report that 1,271 civilians had been killed in conflict-related incidents in the first six months of 2010.

"We are very concerned about the future because the human cost of this conflict is being paid too heavily by civilian Afghans and that's why this report is a wake-up call," Staffan de Mistura, the special representative of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, told a news conference.

There were a total of 3,268 civilian casualties over the period, including 1,997 wounded, he said.

Deaths and injuries among children attributed to insurgents were up 55 percent from 2009, the report said, noting the use of more sophisticated improvised explosive devices throughout the country and a 95 percent increase in assassinations, which de Mistura said were likely intended to scare ordinary people from cooperating with authorities.

"Afghan children and women are increasingly bearing the brunt of the conflict," he said. "They are being killed and injured in their homes and communities in greater numbers than ever before."

The Taliban and other insurgents were responsible for 76 percent, or 2,477, of casualties.

The report found that there were 386 casualties attributed to "pro-government forces," down to 12 percent of the total from 30 percent the year before.

This was attributable mainly to a 64 percent fall in the number of deaths and injuries caused by aerial attacks, it said.

Commenting on the figures, human rights group Amnesty International said the Taliban and other insurgent groups should be investigated and prosecuted for war crimes.

Civilian casualties caused by U.S. and other foreign forces have long been a source of friction between the Afghan government and its Western backers and led to a major falling-out between the two sides last year.

A spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai said deaths caused by combatants on either side were indefensible.

"No aim, aspiration or vision, however sacred, legitimate or illegitimate, can justify the death of an innocent individual in Afghanistan," spokesman Waheed Omer told reporters.

RISING ANGER

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission on Sunday offered different figures. It put the number of civilian deaths over the first seven months of the year at 1,325, a rise of what it said was only about six percent over the same period in 2009.

It said about 68 percent deaths were caused by insurgents and about 23 percent by Afghan and international forces.

With anger rising over civilian casualties, General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, last year issued a directive to limit the use of air strikes after a spate of killings of civilians.

That directive has been tightened further since General David Petraeus replaced McChrystal in June.

"We must continue our emphasis on reducing the loss of innocent civilian life to an absolute minimum," Petraeus said in his directive. "We know the measure by which our mission will be judged is protecting the population from harm by either side."

Citing foreign forces' efforts to reduce casualties, de Mistura said the insurgents needed to think of the future and a political settlement in which they could play a part.

"If they want to be part of a future Afghanistan they cannot do so over the bodies of so many civilians," he said.

(Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin; writing by Paul Tait; editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Andrew Roche)