UN: Civilian deaths in Afghan war hit record high

By Kay Johnson

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Feb. 4 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Jan Kubis, the U.N. Secretary-General's special representative to Afghanistan speaks during announcing of the United Nations casualty report at a press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012. Last year was the deadliest on record for Afghan civilians with 3,021 killed, a rise of 8 percent from the year before as insurgents ratchet up violence with roadside bombs and suicide attacks, the United Nations said Saturday.

Musadeq Sadeq, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

KABUL, Afghanistan — Last year was the deadliest on record for civilians in the Afghan war, with 3,021 killed as insurgents ratcheted up violence with suicide attacks and roadside bombs, the United Nations said Saturday.

Taliban-affiliated militants were responsible for more than three-quarters of the civilian deaths in 2011, the fifth year in a row in which the death toll went up, the U.N. said.

The figures were a grim testament to the violence the Taliban and allied Islamist militants can still unleash in Afghanistan, even as NATO begins to map out plans for international troops to draw down and give Afghan security forces the main responsibility for fighting insurgents by the end of 2014.

"A decade after the war began, the human cost of it is still rising," said Georgette Gagnon, director for human rights for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan. The number of civilian deaths was up 8 percent over the previous year.

Deaths in suicide bombings jumped dramatically to 450, an 80 percent increase over the previous year. While the number of suicide attacks remained about the same, they killed more civilians. On Dec. 6, a bomber detonated his explosives-filled vest at the entrance of a mosque in Kabul, the capital, killing 56 worshippers during the Shiite Muslim rituals of Ashoura. It was the single deadliest suicide attack since 2008.

The single biggest killer of civilians remained the ever-more-powerful roadside bombs planted by insurgents. The homemade explosives, which can be triggered by a footstep or a vehicle and are often rigged with enough explosives to destroy a tank, killed 967 people — nearly a third of the total.

The 130,000-strong coalition force led by the U.S. says it has been hitting the Taliban hard, seizing their one-time strongholds while expanding and training the Afghan army and police to take over primary responsibility for waging the decade-old war.

Still, insurgent attacks are killing more and more civilians, according to a detailed annual U.N. report.

The increased presence of security forces managed to reduce civilian casualties in the troubled southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, but the U.N. said insurgents simply pulled back and focused instead on areas along the country's border with Pakistan, relying more on roadside bombs and suicide attacks in places like bazaars, schoolyards, footpaths, and bus stations.

"The tactics have changed," said Jan Kubis, the U.N. Secretary-General's special representative to Afghanistan. "The anti-government forces being squeezed in certain areas ... move to some other areas and again use these inhuman, undiscriminating weapons like human-activated explosive devices and suicide attacks."

He pointed out that the Taliban itself banned the use of land mines as "un-Islamic and anti-human" in a 1998 proclamation issued while the hard-line movement ruled Afghanistan with their harsh interpretation of Islamic law.

The U.N. report said there is little difference between mines and the buried homemade bombs used by the Taliban. The majority of improvised explosives have about 9 pounds (20 kilograms) of explosives and are triggered by pressure plates rigged to explode when a person steps on it or a vehicle passes over.

"These are basically land mines," Kubis said of the roadside bombs. "So why is this 'inhuman and un-Islamic' weapon being increasingly used?"

The sheer number of roadside bombs that insurgents planted last year overwhelmed security forces' improved ability to detect and neutralize them. An average of 23 roadside bombs per day were either detonated or discovered and defused last year — twice the daily average in 2010, the U.N. report said. Actual explosions increased by 6 percent.

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