KABUL — Civilians are being killed and injured in record numbers in Afghanistan, the United Nations said Wednesday.
The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in a report that it documented 4,853 civilian casualties, including 1,564 deaths and 3,289 injuries, in the first six months of 2014
That’s a 24 percent increase compared with the same period last year, the report said. The total included 295 children killed and 776 injured, a 34 percent jump over last year.
The number of civilians hurt or killed by the fighting in Afghanistan has risen steadily since the U.N. first started tracking such casualties in 2009, when international military operations were at their height. The rising number of deaths and injuries comes as the NATO coalition prepares to depart at the end of the year and Afghan forces take the lead in security operations.
In a signal that the war here is far from over, ground combat surpassed improvised bombs as the leading cause of civilian casualties.
“The nature of the conflict in Afghanistan is changing in 2014 with an escalation of ground engagements in civilian-populated areas,” UNAMA chief Jan Kubis said in a statement. “The impact on civilians, including the most vulnerable Afghans, is proving to be devastating.”
That trend has been highlighted in recent weeks by ongoing fighting in the restive Helmand province in southwestern Afghanistan.
Afghan officials say more than 140 civilians have been killed or wounded during clashes between government forces and the Taliban. Thousands more civilians are reported to have been displaced by the violence.
“The overall levels of violence in this report shows that the war is heating up,” said Graeme Smith, a Kabul-based analysts for the International Crisis Group.
He said the rise in casualties caused by ground combat suggests increased confidence among insurgents. “If they thought they were going to lose battles they would hide and use improvised explosive devices,” he said. “But they’re not hiding. They’re not afraid to go out and shoot.”
A spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said coalition officials are still analyzing the report but added, “We take our commitment to protecting the Afghan people seriously and will continue to work with our Afghan partners to ensure we take all actions necessary to reduce civilian casualties.”
Protecting civilians is also a priority for Afghan forces, Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Zahir Azimi told Stars and Stripes, pointing out that the U.N. report blames insurgent groups for most of the casualties.
The world body attributed 74 percent of the total casualties this year to insurgent groups like the Taliban. Nine percent were caused by government forces, and 1 percent were linked to international military troops.
Twelve percent occurred during fighting between government and insurgent forces, when civilians were caught in the crossfire. The remaining 4 percent were largely caused by unexploded munitions, the report found.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid categorically rejected the report, accusing the U.N. of bias and of not giving the insurgent group time to officially investigate and refute the allegations.
“This report is made with the information and direction of our enemy,” he told Stripes. “It is propaganda for our enemy and the Kabul administration.”
Compared with 2009, the number of civilian casualties caused by “pro-government” forces has dropped by half, almost entirely due to reduced aerial operations by international military forces, the U.N. said.
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.