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UN:  Civilian Death Toll Rises in Afghanistan

A new report finds the war in Afghanistan is taking an increasingly heavy toll on civilians. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, which has just released its mid-year report, says civilian casualties are rising as the conflict with Taliban militants and anti-government elements intensifies and spreads.

The U.N. report finds more than 1,000 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in the first six months of this year, an increase of 24 percent over the same period in 2008.

United Nations investigators blame both anti-government and pro-government forces for the higher casualty rate. But, they say the Taliban militants have killed more civilians than have the Afghan security and international military forces.

Between January and June 2009, the data show anti-government elements killed 59 percent of civilians compared to 35.5 percent by pro-government forces. This represents a significant shift from 2007 when government allies were responsible for 41 percent of civilian casualties and the Taliban for 46 percent.

U.N. Asia-Pacific Unit coordinator, Rori Mungoven, says the bulk of civilian deaths come from suicide attacks and the use of improvised explosive devices by anti-government groups.

"And, although such attacks are frequently directed at military or government targets, they often are carried out in crowded areas with apparent disregard for the high levels of death and injury that they cause to civilians," he said. "UNAMA [U.N. Assistance Mission In Afghanistan] remains concerned that anti-government elements base themselves in areas where civilians are concentrated, in order apparently to deliberately blur the distinction between combatants and civilians."

Mungoven says this appears to be a deliberate policy on the part of the Taliban to get the international forces to respond militarily in areas where civilians are likely to be killed or injured.

He says it is important to look behind the statistics at the human impact of this conflict. He says attacks by anti-government elements on humanitarian workers, government employees, including medical and educational staff is hampering the delivery of health care, shelter and other services essential for survival.

"This has a particular impact on women and children living in the conflict areas. Large parts of South, South West, South East, East and Central regions of the country have become extreme risks for humanitarian agencies conducting relief work," he said. "Schools, particularly those for girls, have come under increasing attack, depriving thousands of students, especially girls of the right to education. According to UNICEF, there were some 16 improvised explosive device explosions in school premises over this six-month period."

Afghanistan's presidential and provincial council elections are scheduled to take place in late August. The United Nations warns the conflict is likely to heat up as the election approaches. And, civilian casualties are likely to rise in the months ahead.

U.N. Human Rights Officials are appealing to all combatants to take measures to protect civilians, and to ensure the independent investigation of all civilian casualties.