GENEVA – The United Nations said Friday the number of civilians killed in conflict in Afghanistan has jumped 24 percent so far this year, with bombings by insurgent and airstrikes by international forces the biggest single killers.
In a grim assessment of the first half of 2009, the U.N. assistance mission in Afghanistan said the Taliban and other anti-government militants have become more deadly by shifting from ambush attacks to suicide bombings, roadside explosives and targeted assassinations.
It warned that more civilians would likely be killed as insurgents try to battle a troop increase by the administration of President Barack Obama, and seek to destabilize the country before presidential and Provincial Council elections on Aug. 20. The summer is also typically the worst for fighting in Afghanistan.
Insurgent attacks are "frequently undertaken regardless of the impact on civilians in terms of deaths and injuries, or destruction of civilian infrastructure," the 21-page report said, ascribing 595 civilian deaths to the Taliban and other "anti-government elements" over the first six months.
Many of those died in suicide attacks or roadside bombs near "civilian traffic, residential compounds and marketplaces."
The United States and Western powers have become more deadly, too, partly because insurgent groups are taking cover in residential areas or luring U.S.-led forces into unintentionally killing civilians, the U.N. said.
The Taliban and others are "basing themselves in civilian areas so as to deliberately blur the distinction between combatants and civilians, and as part of what appears to be an active policy aimed at drawing a military response to areas where there is a high likelihood that civilians will be killed or injured."
The report said international forces have given high priority to minimizing civilian casualties, but along with Afghan forces have killed 310 civilians. Of those, 200 were killed in 40 airstrikes. The total death toll — including those which couldn't be attributed to either side — of 1,013 civilians is 24 percent higher than in the same period in 2008, and 48 percent higher than in 2007.
The U.N. tally is higher than an Associated Press count of civilian deaths based on reports from Afghan and international officials showing that 453 civilians have been killed in insurgent attacks this year, and 199 civilians died from attacks by Afghan or international forces. An Afghan human rights group says an additional 69 civilians died during a U.S. attack in Farah province in May, but the U.S. disputes those deaths.
Along with insurgents and Western nations, the government of Afghanistan shares responsibility "for a rising toll in terms of civilian deaths and injuries and destruction of infrastructure, including homes and assets, which are essential for survival and the maintenance of livelihoods."
The report said civilian deaths rose every month this year as compared with 2008 except February, as insurgent forces sustained attacks throughout the winter in a break from previous years when there was a lull in fighting. Other factors were the increased fighting in urban areas, more complex Taliban attacks and the return of militants fleeing warfare across the border in Pakistan. The intensified operations by U.S. forces was also cited.
May was the deadliest month, with 261 civilians killed. The Taliban and other insurgents were responsible for most of the deaths, but 81 were killed by government or international forces, the U.N. said.
The South has been the worst region as a result of instability in Pakistan and the increase in U.S. activity. Only six civilians were killed in the West of the country in April, but that figure soared in May as a result of airstrikes in Bala Baluk, Farah Province, that killed at least 63 women and children, according to the report.
The U.S. estimated that 60-65 Taliban and 20-30 civilians were killed in the battle.
The U.N. also noted what it called a "new trend" in insurgent attacks. Since May, they have attached magnetic explosive devices to vehicles to target civilians who have worked with government or international military forces. Examples were the killing of a Provincial Council candidate May 29 in Khost and, a month later in separate attacks, of a translator and another individual working for the international forces.
Insurgents have become increasingly sophisticated as well. The report said there has been a rise in coordinated attacks using explosive devices and suicide bombers to target government ministries and offices, "with the intention of incurring the largest amount of casualties." In those attacks, civilian government workers were deliberated singled out and shot, despite clearly being noncombatants, it said.
Music shops and other places selling "immoral" goods such as DVDs have been targeted. In an April attack, a young boy was killed when a bomb placed in his wheelbarrow exploded prematurely 15 meters from a government building in Aybak city. The boy had no knowledge of the bomb, the report said.
On the other side, the report said that two-thirds of the deaths caused by the Afghan government forces or its international allies came in airstrikes. Most casualties resulted from the use of close air support when troops met insurgents in villages or when armed fighters took up positions in residential areas.
The report said civilians in insurgent-dominated areas can rarely refuse shelter to a militant commander or his men, because of intimidation or traditional codes of hospitality. The Taliban and others take advantage of these factors to use civilian homes as cover and deter attacks, or to lead the government or international forces into killing civilians.
International forces have been more forthcoming about acknowledging civilian casualties, but the report expressed continued concern about their "capacity or willingness to provide information" about some incidents.
The U.N. said the report was compiled by its Afghan mission's human rights unit, and drew on independent monitoring and investigation of incidents where civilians were killed in conflict zones. It is the third year the global body has conducted such analysis in Afghanistan.
U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay called on the Afghan government, international forces and insurgents to do more to spare civilians and to "ensure the independent investigation of all civilian casualties."