UN reports spike in Afghan civilian casualties

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The United Nations said on Wednesday that civilian casualties in Afghanistan had dramatically increased by 23 percent in the first six months of the year and blamed the insurgency for the vast majority of the dead and wounded.

In its mid-year report on civilian casualties, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan found that homemade bombs and mines usually placed on or near roads, were the leading cause of deaths and wounds.

But it also noted a worrying new increase in those casualties caused by ground engagements between Afghan security forces and insurgents seeking to regain lost territory — especially in their former heartlands in the east and south of the country.

Insurgents have stepped up the tempo of their attacks in areas where foreign troops have withdrawn, or are in the process of drawing down after handing over the lead for security to Afghan security forces in mid-June. The majority of foreign forces are to leave this year and completely pull out at the end of 2014. Plans by the United States and its allies to retain some troops after that date have not yet been set, pending the signature of a delayed security agreement between Afghanistan and the United States.

Georgette Gagnon, the head of human rights for UNAMA, said the organization documented 1,319 civilian deaths and 2,533 wounded from January to June.

“You are getting increases in contested areas,” Gagnon said of the ground engagements, which caused 25 percent of all civilian casualties after roadside bombs. “The stepped-up transition of security responsibilities from international forces to Afghan forces and the closure of international forces’ military bases was met with increased attacks.”

She also said there was a sharp rise in the number of attacks against civilians working for the government and judiciary, and against civilian administration buildings such as courts.

“This armed conflict has brought increased harm and suffering in the first six months of the year,” Gagnon said of the war, which has lasted nearly 12 years.

UNAMA attributed 74 percent of the civilian casualties to the insurgency, nine percent to the Afghan security forces and U.S.-led international military coalition, and 12 percent to ground engagements between pro-government forces and insurgents. It said the remainder was either unattributed or caused by old explosives.

The Taliban immediately rejected the report as a fabrication. They also vowed to keep targeting government employees and other Afghan civilians they consider linked to the U.S.-led coalition or the administration of President Hamid Karzai, despite a warning from the United Nations that such killings violate international law.

“As we have said earlier, UNAMA prepares its report on the directions and recommendations of the American embassy inside Kabul, whose sole aim is to mislead the people’s mentality against (the) Mujahedin. We strongly reject this unfounded report,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.

He said the Taliban, which he referred to as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan as the group was known when it ruled the country, did not have enough time to fully analyze the report. Mujahid said they had only received it from UNAMA a few hours ahead of its release.

He also disputed UNAMA’s description of government workers as civilians. The Taliban has said it will target anyone working for the government or the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force as a legitimate target.

UNAMA said casualties from targeted attacks against civilians working for the government rose by 76 percent. They included 114 civilians killed and 324 wounded from 103 such attacks — including four against court houses around the country that accounted for the majority of the victims.

“If UNAMA considers officials of Kabul admin, police, soldiers, intelligence workers and employees of other sensitive and detrimental organs as civilians, then their own analysis’ are inaccurate, which means it is nothing but baseless propaganda,” Mujahid said. “We never consider those people as civilians who are directly involved in our country’s occupation and work with sensitive organs of the enemy.”

In the last such attack in Kabul on June 17, a Taliban suicide bomber killed 17 people outside the Supreme Court building. Most were office workers.

Abdul Jamil, a 55-year-old janitor at the Supreme Court, said he lost his left eye and foot in the attack. He said Wednesday that he was worried about the increasing violence reflected in the report.

“I have lost my leg, I have lost my eye, how many other innocent people will face the same fate as me,” he said. “Civilian casualties are increasing and no one pays any attention. It is just a like an animal being killed and no one cares.”

ISAF, which was credited with reducing the number casualties caused by airstrikes since the last count, said it was taking steps to further reduce civilian casualties.

“We have taken a number of positive steps to reduce the number of civilian casualties in this country and our efforts are having a real result,” ISAF said in a statement, which was issued shortly after the Taliban’s.

The report also found that ISAF was increasingly using drones in its airstrikes. It said that drones were responsible for at least one third of the 49 people killed and 41 wounded in airstrikes, but noted that such actions were now responsible for only two percent of all casualties.

It added that much of the decline in casualties was due to ISAF’s efforts to reduce them, but also because fewer airstrikes were now needed because of the steady withdrawal of foreign forces.


Follow Patrick Quinn on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/PatrickAQuinn

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