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UN Reports 40 Percent Increase in Afghan Civilian Deaths

The United Nations says the number of civilians killed during 2008 in Afghanistan rose 40 percent from the year before. The 2,118 civilians reported killed last year is the highest number since the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban government in 2001.

U.N. investigators say that while militants are still responsible for the majority of civilian deaths, foreign and Afghan troops killed 30 percent more civilians last year than they did in 2007.

Overall, Taliban militants and other fighters opposed to the government were blamed for 55 percent of the total civilian deaths in 2008; pro-government forces for 39 percent. Investigators could not determine who was responsible in the remaining cases.

While the resurgence of Taliban fighters since 2007 has drawn international concern over the direction of the war, within Afghanistan there has been as much attention on the number of civilians killed by foreign troops.

President Hamid Karzai has strongly denounced several high-profile airstrikes that killed dozens of people last year. The U.N. report says airstrikes were responsible for 552 civilian deaths in 2008 - more than 60 percent of the total caused by pro-government forces.

On Tuesday, Mr. Karzai's spokesman, Humayun Hamidzada, responded to the report by saying the current situation is unacceptable, but he refrained from singling out foreign troops for blame.

He says we cannot forget that the real responsibility for these casualties rests on the shoulder of the enemies of Afghanistan, who intentionally target civilians and launch operations from near civilian areas.

The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said last year insurgents showed an "increasing disregard" for Afghan lives, killing 1,160 civilians - compared to 700 the year before. Investigators said militants are increasingly using civilians as human shields and carrying out attacks in crowded places.

Despite the higher overall death toll, U.N. spokesman Dan McNorton, says international forces are making efforts to avoid civilian casualties and are becoming more responsive when incidents do occur. "Progress has been made and international military forces have shown themselves more willing than ever before to institute more regular and transparent inquiries into specific incidents," he said.

The U.N.'s annual report comes as the Obama administration is considering doubling the number of American troops in the country and changing strategies to counter the rising Taliban.

Afghan officials have warned that some tactics by foreign troops, such as night-time house raids and airstrikes, are undermining public support for the Afghan government and NATO and U.S. forces. There has also been concern that increasing the number of troops could increase civilian casualties.

U.N. spokesman McNorton says that as international forces consider new tactics, commanders should evaluate what impact they will have on civilian populations.

"What we would urge in all planning is that the lives of civilians and the impact of whatever decisions are taken have upon them are considered to ensure that the high number of civilians who were killed in 2008 does not continue in 2009," he said.

Tuesday's report says that as the conflict drags on destroying infrastructure, drying-up job opportunities and reducing access to basic life-supporting services, it is taking an increasingly heavy toll on civilians.