KABUL (Reuters) - An average of two children per day were killed in Afghanistan last year, with areas of the once peaceful north now among the most dangerous, an independent Afghan rights watchdog said on Wednesday.
The Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM) said in a report that, of the 2,421 civilians the group registered as killed in conflict-related security incidents in 2010, some 739 were under the age of 18.
It attributed almost two thirds of the child deaths to "armed opposition groups" (AOGs), or insurgents, and blamed U.S. and NATO-led forces for 17 percent.
The ARM report said many of the reported child casualties occurred in the violent southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, the traditional strongholds of the Taliban insurgency.
But Kunar in the east and Kunduz in the north were also among the most dangerous provinces for children, it said, underlining how violence has spread from insurgent strongholds in the south and east to previously peaceful areas of the country.
Civilian and military casualties hit record levels in 2010, with violence at its worst since the Taliban were overthrown by U.S.-led Afghan forces in late 2001.
War-related child deaths in 2010 were down on 2009, when ARM said 1,050 were killed. However the watchdog warned: "Children were highly vulnerable to the harms of war but little was done by the combatant sides, particularly by the AOGs, to ensure child safety and security during military and security incidents."
A United Nations report late last year found that civilian casualties in Afghanistan rose 20 percent in the first 10 months of 2010 compared with 2009, with more than three-quarters killed or wounded by insurgents.
The report found that there were 6,215 civilian casualties, including 2,412 deaths, in that period. Those caused by Afghan and foreign "pro-government" forces accounting for 12 percent of the total, an 18 percent drop on the same period in 2009.
Civilian casualties in NATO-led military operations, often caused by air strikes and night raids, have long been a source of friction between the Afghan government and its Western partners.
Rules governing air strikes and night raids have been tightened significantly by NATO-led forces in the past two years.
On Monday, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said a child had been killed inadvertently in an air strike during coalition operations in Helmand. The child was found dead in a compound near the target of the strike, it said.
The ARM report said most of the child deaths were caused by homemade bombs, followed by suicide attacks, air strikes and mortars.
Editing by Paul Tait and Sanjeev Miglani