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Report Cites Surge in Afghan Civilian Casualties as Taleban Gains Strength

Civilian causalities in Afghanistan surged dramatically in the last 15 months according to a new report, which pins most of the deadly violence on Taleban extremists. From Islamabad, VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand says the new report from a leading human rights group accuses Taleban insurgents of intentionally targeting civilians and violating international law.

Security experts with the New York-based Human Rights Watch say 2006 was Afghanistan's deadliest year in more than half a decade and 2007 shows no sign of improvement.

In a new report released on Monday the group says insurgent forces killed more than 700 civilians in the last 15 months. There have been at least 350 armed attacks, including at least 136 suicide bombings in 2006, a six-fold increase over the year before.

Joanne Mariner is the director of terrorism and counter-terrorism at Human Rights Watch. Speaking by phone from Kabul she says most attacks apparently targeted military personnel but the victims were overwhelmingly civilian.

"We also found that the Taleban and associated groups are directly and purposefully targeting civilians, which is a gross violation of international law and the law of war," she said.

Mariner says the violence is spreading well beyond the Taleban's traditional battleground states in southern and southeastern Afghanistan.

The new report says roughly one third of last year's attacks occurred outside these areas including suicide attacks inside the previously secure capital, Kabul.

And on Monday morning, a suicide bomber in the northern city of Kunduz killed at least nine policemen and injured more than 25 others, in the first major attack in the relatively stable northern provinces in several months.

Joanne Mariner says the insecurity has already forced several aid groups to suspend work in the poorest areas.

"It is having a devastating impact on the provision of basic social services," she said.

Mariner says the number of attacks on Afghan teachers and schools has doubled in the past year forcing hundreds of thousands of children, especially girls, to stay home.

The Taleban and other hardline islamists say educating girls is fundamentally un-Islamic and that girls' schools are legitimate targets.

Mariner says the Taleban is also increasingly using kidnappings to terrorize international aid workers, journalists and their local counterparts.

The new report does note several instances where Afghan government and U.S. led coalition forces caused civilian casualties, though in far fewer numbers than insurgents.

Human Rights Watch says there are cases where coalition or NATO forces may have conducted "indiscriminate attacks" that resulted in civilian deaths. But, the report says there is no evidence international forces have ever intentionally targeted civilians.