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UN: Civilian deaths in Afghan war hit record high
UN: 2011 was deadliest year on record for Afghan civilians as Taliban change tactics
By The Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) ' 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 ratcheted up violence with roadside bombs and suicide attacks, 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.

"As 2011 unfolded, ordinary Afghan people experienced growing intrusion into and disruption of their daily lives by the armed conflict in their country," the report said.

The number of civilians killed in suicide attacks jumped dramatically to 450, an 80 percent increase over the previous year. On Dec. 6, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives 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.

Increased presence of security forces managed to reduce civilian casualties in 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.

"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, indiscriminating weapons like human-activated explosive devices and suicide attacks."

He pointed out that the Taliban itself banned the use of land mines in a populated area 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 than 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 report's toll of 3,021 civilians dead in violence related to the war and 4,507 more wounded made 2011 the deadliest year for Afghan civilians recorded by the U.N. since it started keeping a detailed count of civilian casualties five years ago. The number was roughly double the number from 2007.

The U.N. attributed 77 percent of the deaths to insurgent attacks and 14 percent to actions by international and Afghan troops. Nine percent of cases were classified as having an unknown cause.

The number of civilian deaths caused by insurgents was up 14 percent over 2010, the U.N. said, while those caused by security forces went down 4 percent.

"It is extremely worrying to see civilian casualties continuing to rise year after year,' said Navi Pillay, the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights. "Behind these numbers is real suffering and loss for families in Afghanistan."

Last year was also the second-deadliest year of the decade-long war for international forces in Afghanistan, with at least 544 NATO troops killed. The coalition has been in Afghanistan since the aftermath of the 2001 American-backed intervention to topple the Taliban, which followed the hard-line Islamist regime's refusal to hand over al-Qaida terrorist chief Osama bin Laden, who sponsored the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.

While the total number of civilian deaths caused by international and Afghan forces dropped, the number of civilians killed by air strikes targeting insurgents rose to 187 in 2011, accounting for nearly half the deaths attributed to coalition and Afghan troops.

The number of civilians killed during controversial, coalition-led night raids on homes dropped to 63 in 2011, down 22 percent from the previous year, the U.N. said.

Night raids by U.S. and Afghan special operations teams are a source of resentment among many Afghans, though the NATO force says they have led to the death or capture of dozens of Taliban figures. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has demanded an end to night raids.

The U.N. noted a shift in where the violence affecting civilians was centered in Afghanistan. In 2010, the provinces with the highest numbers of civilian casualties were the southern Taliban strongholds of Helmand and Kandahar, where an increased number of U.S. troops pushed to take back territory from insurgents.

While those two provinces still had the most deaths in 2011, their numbers dropped, while civilian deaths went sharply up in southeastern provinces including Khost and Paktika, and the eastern provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar. All those areas lie along Afghanistan volatile border with Pakistan, where many of the Taliban's leaders and the al-Qaida-allied Haqqani network are believed to be based.

Insurgents also intensified an assassination campaign against people associated with the Afghan government. The U.N. report documented 495 targeted killings in 2011, including provincial and district government officials, peace council members and pro-government tribal elders. Assassinations were up 3 percent from the previous year and up 160 percent from 2009.

Among the highest profile assassination victims last year was former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of the high peace council charged with seeking talks with the Taliban. He was killed by a suicide bomber claiming to carry a message from the insurgents.

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