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Buildings and cars sit mangled near the site of a large truck bomb that exploded in Kabul on Aug. 7, 2015. The blast left a wide swath of destruction and killed or wounded more than 100 people.
Buildings and cars sit mangled near the site of a large truck bomb that exploded in Kabul on Aug. 7, 2015. The blast left a wide swath of destruction and killed or wounded more than 100 people. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

KABUL, Afghanistan — Escalating combat between Afghan government troops and insurgents in 2015, particularly the fighting in Kunduz, has claimed a record number of civilian casualties, with a heavy toll among women and children, according to an annual U.N. report released Sunday.

The total number of 11,002 civilian casualties — 3,545 deaths and 7,457 wounded — in 2015 was four percent higher overall than the previous record set in 2014, according to the report. The number of deaths was down four percent and the number of wounded was up nine percent.

Insurgents were responsible for 62 percent of all civilian casualties in 2015, a 10 percent decrease from 2014. But the number of casualties attributed to pro-government forces, 17 percent, increased by 28 percent, the report said. 2015 was the first year that Afghan forces were primarily responsible for security across the entire country after the international coalition formally ended its combat role the previous year, and insurgents prosecuted offensives across the country.

However, international forces continued to be engaged and the U.N. attributed 179 casualties — 106 deaths and 73 injured — to them. All but nine were the result of airstrikes, in particular the U.S. attack on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz in October, in which 42 people were killed and 43 injured. A U.S. probe into the attack attributed it to “human error.”

"We join (the UN) in expressing our contempt for the unnecessary harm to civilians,” said Col. Michael T. Lawhorn, spokesman for the U.S.-led international coalition. “The Taliban remain the number one cause of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, and we strongly support an Afghan-led peace process as the surest way to end the violence in this country.”

Ground combat caused the largest number of overall civilian casualties — a 15 percent increase over 2014 — and killed the most civilians, according to the report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

Improvised explosive devices were the second leading cause of all civilian casualties, followed by suicide and complex attacks and targeted killings.

Intensified fighting in the second half of the year across the country and particularly the Taliban offensive in Kunduz province, where government forces battled for two weeks to oust the insurgents from the provincial capital, “drove a 60 percent increase in civilian casualties from ground engagements, reversing the 19 percent decrease in casualties resulting from this tactic” the U.N. had documented in the first half of the year, the report said.

The U.N. found that roughly a thrid of casualties from ground engagements were caused by government forces. That marked a 40 percent increase over the previous year. The majority of those casualties were attributed to explosive weapons, such as artillery, mortars and grenades, the report said.

Insurgents accounted for 25 percent of civilian casualties during ground engagements, a decrease of 38 percent, the U.N. found.

Ground engagements also accounted for more than half of all casualties among women and one in four of all civilian casualties was a child, the report said.

Women accounted for 11 percent of all civilian casualties in 2015, a 37 percent increase over the previous year, according to the report. Children made up 26 percent of all civilian casualties, an increase of 14 percent.

“In 2015, the conflict caused extreme harm to the civilian population, with particularly appalling consequences for children. Unprecedented numbers of children were needlessly killed and injured last year,” said Danielle Bell, the U.N. Director of Human Rights in Afghanistan, according to a release.

Insurgents also continued to target prominent women working for human rights or in public life, the report said.

The U.N. also noted a “new, disturbing trend,” documenting eight “parallel justice punishments of women accused of ‘moral crimes,’ resulting in the execution of five women and one girl, and the physical punishment of two women and one girl by anti-government elements.”

The report also highlighted a series of attacks in Kabul, particularly two suicide attacks on Aug. 7, which caused 355 civilian casualties. That was “the highest number of civilians killed and injured in one day” since UNAMA began tracking civilian casualties in 2009.

Both Afghan security forces and Taliban guerrillas suffered their heaviest casualties of the 15-year war in 2015, when the insurgents challenged the newly independent Afghan forces by launching a series of offensive operations throughout the country, which caused heavy fighting and casualties on both sides.

The insurgents rejected the report’s findings, describing them as Western propaganda.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the world body’s reports were “always one-sided,” and that most civilian casualties were caused by bombardments by government and NATO forces. “We reject the report, we are very careful about civilian casualties,” he said.

Seventeen percent of casualties, mostly individuals caught in crossfires, could not be attributed to either insurgents or pro-government forces, the report said.

UNAMA has recorded a total of 58,736 civilian casualties in Afghanistan since it began its systematic documentation in 2009.

“The people of Afghanistan continue to suffer brutal and unprincipled attacks that are forbidden under international law,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, was quoted in the news release as saying. “This is happening with almost complete impunity. The perpetrators of the violations … must be held to account.”

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

lekic.slobodan@stripes.com

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