U.N. alarmed by surge in civilian casualties in Afghanistan

Continued photo coverage documenting the U.S., Afghan and NATO military effort in Afghanistan.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 4:29 PM

KABUL - A sharp jump in assassinations and a rise in suicide and roadside bombings in Afghanistan last year led to an increase in civilian casualties, the United Nations said Wednesday.

The United Nations documented 2,777 civilian deaths in 2010, which it said marked a 15 percent rise compared with the number killed in fighting the previous year. The grim numbers in the U.N. annual report on civilian casualties come as the traditionally less-violent winter season gives way to spring, the start of the fighting season in Afghanistan.

Seventy-five percent of the deaths, or 2,080, were attributed by the United Nations to the Taliban and other groups seeking to destabilize the U.S.-backed Afghan government. That represented a 28 percent increase from 2009.

Military operations by NATO and Afghan forces resulted in the deaths of 440 civilians, or 16 percent of the total, a 26 percent decrease from those killed in 2009, the United Nations said.

Nine percent of the civilian casualties could not be attributed, the United Nations said.

Suicide attacks and makeshift bombs accounted for the brunt of the deaths, killing 1,141 people. The report said the most "alarming trend" was a surge in assassinations carried out by insurgents. At least 462 civilians were assassinated by groups opposing the government last year, a 105 percent increase over 2009.

Nearly half of those killings occurred in southern provinces where NATO has fought pitched battles to clear insurgent strongholds in recent months. Taliban fighters have responded by killing local government officials, part of an effort to prevent formal governance from taking root in districts where the Taliban has been the main authority for years.

Airstrikes were the leading cause of civilian deaths at the hands of NATO forces, resulting in the killing of 171 civilians last year, the U.N. report said. The United Nations urged NATO to conduct "thorough, impartial and transparent" investigations into all civilian casualties.

The U.N. tallies on civilian casualties are widely regarded as the most comprehensive and independent. Georgette Gagnon, the United Nations' Afghan mission director for human rights, said in a statement that that "2011 should be a year of escalating civilian protection, not another year of increasing casualties."

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top NATO commander here, and his predecessor, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, have taken steps to reduce civilian casualties. The accidental deaths of civilians have strained the relationship between NATO and the Afghan government and have bolstered the Taliban's effort to depict foreign soldiers as merciless invaders.

The U.N. report was issued a week after nine children were mistakenly killed in an airstrike while collecting firewood in eastern Afghanistan. The incident angered Afghan President Hamid Karzai and prompted a personal apology from Petraeus.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, NATO officials said that troops in Nimruz province in southwestern Afghanistan recently intercepted a large shipment of rockets believed to have been supplied by the Iranian government.

The seizure of 48 122mm rockets raised alarm that Iran could be making a renewed attempt to engage in a proxy war with the United States and its allies in the face of stepped-up sanctions. NATO officials said the rockets have a range of about 12 miles, approximately double the range of the insurgents' similar weapons.

A statement issued by the British government expressed alarm about the rockets, saying they were "destined for the Taliban."

"I am extremely concerned by the latest evidence that Iran continues to supply the Taliban with weaponry," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in the statement, which added that the munitions were "clearly intended" to enable the Taliban to kill Afghan and NATO soldiers "from a significant distance."

Iran denies that it is aiding the Taliban.

Meanwhile, military officials said two NATO soldiers were killed in insurgent attacks Wednesday in southern Afghanistan. The nationality of the service members was not disclosed.

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