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8 Feb, 2014 13:33

UN: Afghan conflict 'changes nature' leading to civilian death surge in 2013

UN: Afghan conflict 'changes nature' leading to civilian death surge in 2013

Civilians in Afghanistan suffered a heavy toll last year with total casualties jumping 14 percent, as fighting intensified between government troops and insurgents, the United Nations said in a report on Saturday.

The Afghan government, left to clean up the mess following the withdrawal of foreign troops from its territory, finds itself under increasing attack by insurgents, and the fighting partially accounts for last year's dramatic surge in casualties, according to the report.

The report pointed to the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), discharged by rebel forces in places where large numbers of civilians gather, such as markets and roadsides. Explosive devices accounted for about one-third of the total civilian toll, which the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) put at 2,959 deaths and 5,656 wounded in its report.

The relentless violence in Afghanistan has made 2013 one of the deadliest years of the 12-year war for civilians.

Tragically, the rise in civilian casualties from ground fighting includes an “alarming increase in women and children casualties, reflected the changing dynamics of the conflict over the year," the United Nations said.

Afghan security forces inspect a damaged car, which was used during a suicide bomb attack, outside the U.S. consulate in Herat province September 13, 2013 (Reuters / Mohammad Shoib)

Last year ranked the worst for women and children since 2009, with the number killed or injured by the ongoing violence increasing by more than one-third from 2012.

"It is the awful reality that most women and children were killed and injured in their daily lives — at home, on their way to school, working in the fields or travelling to a social event," said Georgette Gagnon, director of human rights for the UN mission.

Meanwhile, attacks targeting mullahs and places of worship tripled in 2013. UNAMA listed 27 incidents in which persons or places of worship, including mosques, were directly threatened or attacked, resulting in 18 civilian deaths and seven wounded.

The report pointed to the changing dynamics of the war in Afghanistan as a leading cause of the uptick in civilian casualties.

"This 'fog of war' dynamic reflects the changed nature of the conflict in Afghanistan in 2013 which was increasingly being waged in civilian communities and populated areas," the United Nations said.

While both sides in the conflict were responsible for the increase in casualties last year, the UN blamed around 75 percent of the casualties on the Taliban.

Afghan policeman in civilian clothes tries to secure the scene of an incident in Kabul May 25, 2013 (Reuters / Omar Sobhani)

"Statements on protecting civilians by the Taliban leadership are not nearly enough to end the killing and injuring of innocent Afghan civilians," UN Special Representative Ján Kubis said in a statement.

"What is needed is for the Taliban to stop deliberately attacking civilians and using IEDS indiscriminately."

International forces, however, were responsible for about 3 percent of casualties, according to the report.

The UN report said that there were 54 aerial operations – 19 by unmanned aerial drones - that resulted in civilian casualties.

The number of civilian deaths from these drone strikes has more than tripled from 2012, the report said.

Meanwhile, the level of growing mistrust between the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai and Washington was amplified last month following hints by the Afghan leader that the United States has played some kind of role in recent insurgent attacks in Afghanistan.

An anonymous Afghan official, quoted by the Washington Post last month, said Karzai believes that “dozens of attacks blamed on the Taliban” have actually been planned by the US to weaken his government.

Afghan policemen walk near a crater at the site of a suicide attack at the Indian consulate in Jalalabad province August 3, 2013 (Reuters / Parwiz)

The official admitted that Karzai had no hard evidence of such US involvement in any attack.

US Ambassador to Afghanistan, James B. Cunningham, told the Post that Karzai's alleged ideas represented "a deeply conspiratorial view that's divorced from reality ... It flies in the face of logic and morality to think that we would aid the enemy we’re trying to defeat."

The comments reflect deepening tensions between Washington and Karzai, who continues to refuse to grant the US troops remaining in Afghanistan immunity from prosecution in the country’s courts. The issue continues to impede the signing of a tentative security agreement between the two countries.

Karzai seems content to leave the issue for his successor following Afghanistan's April presidential election.

This week, Karzai confirmed he is engaged in secret talks with the Taliban, which reportedly wants to join the Afghanistan peace process.

Karzai’s spokesperson confirmed to Reuters on Tuesday that government representatives had been in negotiations with the Taliban and the results were promising.

“I can confirm that ... Taliban are willing more than ever to join the peace process,” Aimal Faizi said. “Contacts have been made and we are also in touch with them.”