U.N.: Civilian deaths up 24 percent in Afghanistan

KABUL -- Civilian deaths in the escalating Afghan war soared by 24 percent during the first half of 2009 compared with the same period last year, the United Nations said Friday, blaming most of the casualties on Taliban attacks launched with little regard for civilian lives.

The U.N. Assistance Mission to Afghanistan also pointed to stepped-up military operations by the United States and its allies, especially airstrikes, for the steady increase in Afghan civilian casualties over the past two years.

However, the report also said the number of civilians killed by the Taliban and other "anti-government forces" during the first half of the year was double those attributed to the U.S.-led coalition and Afghan government forces. The U.N. termed that a "significant shift" from 2007, when the coalition was responsible for 41 percent of civilian deaths.

Both the U.S. and some elements of the Taliban appear sensitive to the issue of civilian casualties, fearing a loss of support among the embattled Afghan population.

This month, the new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, issued orders to curb the use of airstrikes to hold down civilian casualties.

A new Taliban "code of conduct," attributed to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, instructs fighters to make "the utmost effort" to avoid killing civilians and to curb the use of suicide attacks. NATO officials dismissed the code as propaganda.

Despite the Taliban code, the U.N. report said insurgent suicide attacks and roadside bombings claimed more civilian lives "than any other tactic used by the parties to the conflict" and were launched "in violation of the relevant principles of international law."

"Far from taking action to minimize the impact of their activities on civilians, sectors of the armed opposition appear to deliberately favor the use of indiscriminate tactics, such as the use of IEDs," the report said, referring to improvised explosive devices or roadside bombs.

"Although such attacks are frequently directed against military or government targets, they are often carried out in crowded areas with apparent disregard for the extensive injury and death they cause to civilians," the report added.

According to the U.N., at least 1,013 civilians were killed in the first six months of this year compared with 818 for the same period in 2008 -- an increase of 24 percent.

Of those, 595 died as a result of Taliban attacks, many of them against "civilian traffic, residential compounds and marketplaces," the report said. International and Afghan government forces killed another 310 civilians, including 200 in 40 airstrikes, according to the U.N. The 108 other civilian deaths could not be attributed to either side, the report said.

The U.N. figures are higher than an Associated Press count of civilian deaths based on reports from Afghan and international officials. The AP count shows that 524 civilians died in the first six months of the year -- a 27 percent increase over the same period last year.

The report was released at the end of the bloodiest month for U.S. and NATO forces in the nearly eight-year war. At least 42 U.S service members and 31 from other international military forces were killed in July, according to military announcements.

The U.N. said the Taliban and other insurgents have been hiding in civilian areas as part of "an active policy aimed at drawing a military response" to areas where there would be a "high likelihood" that civilians would be killed or injured.

A 36-year-old carpenter, Wazir Mohammad, believes his family fell victim to that tactic when fighting broke out last month between U.S. troops and insurgents in the village of Nangalam in the eastern province of Kunar.

As the family huddled inside their home, a rocket slammed into the ground floor, killing Mohammad's father, brother and grandmother, he said. Five other relatives were wounded. Mohammad, a 36-year-old carpenter, said he didn't know which side fired the rocket.

A doctor in the village, who uses only one name, Nizamuddin, said Taliban and U.S. forces exchange fire almost daily around the village and that rockets and mortars detonate from time to time in civilian districts.

"We are so depressed," Mohammad said by telephone. "We do not know what the future holds for us."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has publicly berated NATO commanders over civilian deaths and has called for new rules governing the conduct of Western military operations if he wins a second term in the August elections.

However, the U.N. report said the Afghan government also shares responsibility "for a rising toll in terms of civilian deaths and injuries" and the destruction of property.

The report said civilian deaths rose every month this year as compared with 2008 except February. The report cited increased fighting in urban areas, more complex Taliban attacks and the return of militants who had fled across the border into Pakistan.

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 U.N. also noted what it called a "new trend" in insurgent attacks. Since May, insurgents have attached magnetic explosive devices to vehicles to target civilians who have worked with government or international military forces. A provincial council candidate was killed by a magnetic bomb May 29 in Khost.

A month later, such bombs killed a translator and another individual working for the international forces.

Music shops and other places selling "immoral" goods such as DVDs have also been targeted. In an April attack, a young boy was killed when a bomb placed in his wheelbarrow exploded prematurely 50 feet from a government building in Aybak city. The boy had no knowledge of the bomb, the report said.

Associated Press Writers Amir Shah and Fisnik Abrashi in Kabul and Bradley Klapper in Geneva contributed to this report.