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Aug 5, 5:30 AM EDT

UN reports rise in women, children casualties in Afghan war


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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- The United Nations said on Wednesday that an increasing number of women and children were getting hurt or killed in Afghanistan's war against the Taliban and other insurgents.

The total number of casualties in the almost 14-year conflict was up one percent in the first half of this year, compared to the same period last year, a new U.N. report said. However, the number of women casualties rose by 23 percent and children 13 percent.

Danielle Bell, director of the Human Rights Unit at the U.N.'s Assistant Mission in Afghanistan, said the alarming rise in casualties among women and children was due to ground fighting. UNAMA attributed 70 percent of civilian casualties to insurgent forces.

She said the U.N. was not able to verify whether the Taliban were using civilians as human shields, but that a large number of casualties caused by pro-government troops stemmed from exchange of fire in residential areas.

Afghanistan's security forces have been fighting the Taliban alone since the withdrawal of U.S. and international combat troops last year. The Taliban have sought to take advantage by escalating their attacks, spreading their footprint from the south and east to the north, and joining forces with other insurgent groups.

Afghan officials have said other insurgent groups, as well as the Islamic State group - which controls about one-third of Syria and Iraq and has a small but growing presence in Afghanistan - have joined the anti-government war.

The UNAMA report said 4,921 civilian deaths and injuries were recorded in the first half of this year.

"The vast majority, or 90 percent, of all civilians casualties resulted from ground engagements, improvised explosive devices, complex and suicide attacks and targeted killings," it said.

Heather Barr, a senior researcher on Afghanistan with the New York-based Human Rights Watch, echoed UNAMA's call for all parties in the Afghanistan conflict to avoid harming civilians.

The Afghan government "has to take responsibility for civilian casualties - it has to educate its forces about what international law is on the protection of civilians and if there are deaths caused by government forces, they must be investigated," Barr said.

Barr noted that the UNAMA reports says civilian casualties caused by government forces are up 60 percent compared to the same period in 2014.

With no NATO troops on the battlefields following the withdrawal of international combat troops from Afghanistan at the end of last year, she expressed concerns those numbers could rise further.

"There seems to be no willingness by the government to take seriously these problems," Barr said. "As there are fewer and fewer international forces to watch and constrain what the Afghan security forces are doing, there is less constraint than before, and no reason to believe things will improve with the continuing drawdown."

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