Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Killings of Afghan civilians sharply up, U.N. says

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA, Sept 16 (Reuters) - Nearly 1,500 Afghan civilians were killed in the first eight months of this year, many in attacks on schools, medical clinics, bazaars and other crowded areas, the United Nations said on Tuesday.

The death toll, up 39 percent from the same period in 2007, includes 800 killings blamed on Taliban and other militants as well as 577 caused by Afghan forces and their U.S.-led coalition allies. Responsibility for another 68 deaths was not clear.

The U.N. human rights office said the spike in fatalities had coincided with “a systematic campaign of intimidation and violence” by Taliban forces targeting doctors, teachers, students, tribal elders, civil servants, former police and military personnel and public construction workers.

“The number of killings by the Taliban and other anti-government forces almost doubled by comparison with the first eight months of 2007, with the numbers killed by government and international military forces also increasing substantially,” it said in a report.

There were 330 civilians killed in Afghanistan in August alone, spokesman Rupert Colville said.

“That’s the highest number of civilian deaths to occur in a single month since the end of major hostilities and the ousting of the Taliban regime at the end of 2001,” he told a news briefing in Geneva, where the U.N.’s human rights work is based.

Air strikes by international forces caused nearly 400 civilian deaths in the year through August, the U.N. office said, calling for accountability and greater transparency about those attacks.

The Taliban carried out 142 summary executions and also used suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices, according to the report drawn up by human rights officers attached to the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

COMMUNITIES FEARFUL

In a statement, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanetham Pillay said there was “substantial evidence” that the Taliban was seeking to intimidate aand attack Afghan civilians thought to support the Afghan government, the international community and military forces.

While most Taliban attacks focused on military and government targets, “such operations were frequently undertaken in crowded civilian areas such as bazaars or busy roads,” the U.N. report found.

“Such attacks terrorise communities and make them fearful of supporting or even associating with the government,” it said. “Schools and medical services, in particular, have become prime targets for attack by anti-government elements”.

It singled out a suicide bombing during a dog fight in Kandahar province last February which killed 67 spectators, and a bomb in July at the Indian embassy in Kabul which killed 50.

An air strike on a wedding party in Nangahar province last July killed 47 civilians, including 30 children, and a strike in Azizabad village in western Herat’s Shindand district on Aug. 22 caused 92 civilian deaths, including 62 children, it said.

The U.S. military, which initially said 30 to 35 militants were killed in Azizabad, plans to reopen the investigation into the incident after a cellphone video emerged showing bodies of people said to have been killed in the strike.

Pillay, a former International Criminal Court judge who took up as the top U.N. rights official this month, said civilians must to be shielded from the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan.

“It is also imperative that there is greater transparency in accountability procedures for international forces involved in incidents that cause civilian casualties,” she said. (editing by Laura MacInnis and Robert Hart)

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