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Afghan civilian casualties up 23% in first half of 2013

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Taliban attacks and clashes with insurgents have caused a 23% rise in civilian casualties in the first half of 2013, the UN said Wednesday, underscoring concerns over the ability of Afghan forces to provide security when NATO troops withdraw.

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Civilian casualties in the Afghan war rose 23 percent in the first half of this year due to Taliban attacks and increased fighting between insurgents and government forces, the UN said Wednesday.

The increase reverses a decline in 2012 and raises questions about how Afghan troops can protect civilians as US-led NATO soldiers withdraw from the 12-year war against the Taliban.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said 1,319 civilians died and 2,533 were injured as a result of the war from January 1 to June 30, up 23 percent on the same period in 2012.

UNAMA said there was a 14 percent increase in total civilian deaths and a 28 percent increase in total civilian injuries.

Female civilian casualties rose 61 percent, most caused by fighting on the ground between pro-government and insurgent forces, the UN said in a report.

Child casualties were up 30 percent with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the Taliban weapon of choice, the leading cause.

"The rise in civilian casualties in the first half of 2013 reverses the decline recorded in 2012, and marks a return to the high numbers of civilian deaths and injuries documented in 2011," the report said.

The UN said 74 percent of the casualties were caused by insurgents, nine percent by pro-government forces and 12 percent as a result of ground fighting between the two sides.

The remaining four or five percent of civilian casualties were unattributed, caused mainly by explosive remnants of war, it added.

While IED attacks remain the highest cause of civilian casualties, increased ground fighting between Afghan troops and insurgents was the second leading cause and a new trend in the first half of 2013.

The Afghan interior ministry accused the insurgents of using civilians as human shields.

"The UN report clearly indicates that the Taliban are responsible for 76 percent of the civilian casualties," spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told AFP.

"They use civilians as human shields, and the Afghan Security Forces when engaging with these terrorists take serious precautions to avoid any civilians casualties."

The Taliban rejected the report.

"As usual, a report has been prepared and published by the UNAMA office in Kabul on the American demands which is totally biased," the militants said in a statement.

"We strongly reject this unfounded report and tell UNAMA that it will not succeed in this process of propaganda."

The UN director of human rights, Georgette Gagnon, told reporters in Kabul that the UN had invited the Taliban for talks on reducing civilian casualties, but with no result yet.

The NATO combat mission is due to close down at the end of 2014 and Afghan government forces have taken the lead in the battle against the Taliban.

"Despite Afghan forces leading almost all military operations countrywide, a permanent structure does not exist... to systematically investigate allegations of civilian casualties, initiate remedial measures and take follow-up action," the UN said.

The UN also recorded a 76 percent increase in civilian casualties as a result of insurgents targeting civilian government employees, government offices, district headquarters and other offices.

The UN report also recorded a sharp decline of 30 percent in the number of civilian casualties as a result of NATO air strikes, which in the past have been a source of considerable controversy.

The International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan welcomed the report and blamed the Taliban for nearly 90 percent of civilian casualties.

It said a number of "positive steps" it had taken to reduce civilian casualties were having "a real result".

The UN report was released as President Hamid Karzai held talks with visiting US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Dobbins.

They discussed flagging efforts to start peace talks with the Taliban and the prospects of a security deal between Kabul and Washington that would allow some US troops to remain beyond 2014.

On Tuesday the Pentagon told Congress in a twice-yearly report that the Afghan military is increasingly effective but will need considerable training and foreign aid in the future.

There have been signs of friction between President Barack Obama and Karzai, with Washington reportedly mulling a faster withdrawal of troops or even leaving no forces behind after 2014.

Half of the 68,000 US troops in Afghanistan are currently set to leave by February.

Karzai suspended talks on any future US military presence to protest against the manner in which a Taliban office opened in Qatar in June.

But last week he told top US military commander General Martin Dempsey that he was ready in principle to let a residual American force stay in the country beyond 2014.

(AFP)

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