KABUL More than 2,100 civilians were killed in Afghanistan last year, 40 percent more than 2007, the United Nations said on Tuesday, a further sign of worsening security seven years after U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban.
While 55 percent of the victims were killed by Taliban insurgents and their allies, a quarter of all civilian casualties, 552 people, died as a result of air strikes by U.S. and NATO-led forces in Afghanistan.
"The growing death toll ... is of great concern to the United Nations," the U.N. mission in Afghanistan said in a report. "This disquieting pattern demands that the parties to the conflict take all necessary measures to avoid the killing of civilians."
The issue is extremely sensitive in Afghanistan and has left President Hamid Karzai fuming as he repeatedly calls on foreign forces to take more care to avoid innocent loss of life.
News of Afghan women and children killed in air strikes has frequently led to protests across Afghanistan and is one of the biggest factors weakening public support for the continued presence of nearly 70,000 mostly Western troops.
U.S. commanders have warned there will likely be a further rise in violence this year as up to 25,000 more U.S. troops arrive in the country and begin more patrols in new areas. Civilian deaths will also likely rise, they have said.
Of the 2,118 civilians killed in 2008, 1,160 were killed by insurgents, the U.N. said, of those, 725 were killed by suicide and roadside bombs and 271 died in targeted assassinations.
But rather than leading to outbursts of anger against the Taliban, often in the aftermath of suicide and roadside bombs, many Afghans blame government and Western troops for failing to safeguard security and stop insurgents carrying out the attacks.
International forces have tried to reduce civilian casualties in 2008, the report said, and pointed to the decision to put troops from NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom under one command to ensure accountability.
But some forces, notably U.S. special operations forces, are still not under the same command.
ISAF also issued a number of tactical directives designed to reduce the killing of ordinary Afghans such as ordering troops to withdraw from clashes with insurgents rather than calling in air strikes if they think there is a risk to civilian life.
"International military forces showed themselves more willing than before to institute more regular and transparent inquiries into specific incidents," the U.N. said, though the transparency and independence of those inquiries were a cause for concern.
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)