2009 deadliest year for Afghan civilians: U.N.

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KABUL (Reuters) – Western and government troops killed fewer civilians in Afghanistan in 2009 but far more died at the hands of insurgents, making it the deadliest year of the eight-year war, a U.N. report said on Wednesday.

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Civilian casualties, one of the most emotive issues of the war, rose 14 percent overall to more than 2,400, the Human Rights division of the U.N.’s Afghan mission said.

Reducing the civilian deaths caused by his troops has been a central focus of General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of NATO and U.S. forces, who took over in the middle of 2009 promising a new strategy to protect Afghans.

The report showed a clear improvement by Western and government troops, which killed 25 percent fewer civilians than in 2008, despite suffering their own record losses. Killings by insurgents rose 40 percent, more than making up the difference.

In all, insurgents caused two-thirds of civilian deaths, while a quarter were caused by government or foreign troops. The remaining 8 percent could not be attributed to either.

McChrystal imposed new restrictions on the use of force by his International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), particularly air strikes, in areas where civilians might be hurt, arguing that civilian deaths aid insurgents by angering the population.

Around 60 percent of those killed by Western forces died in air strikes, the U.N. report said. It also condemned the placement of military bases near areas where many civilians live, and violent “search and seizure” raids by pro-government and foreign troops.

“These often involved excessive use of force, destruction of property and cultural insensitivity, particularly toward women,” Norah Niland, the chief human rights officer at the United Nations in Kabul, said in a statement.

COMPENSATION CALL

Activists said Western forces should do more to reduce the impact when civilians are harmed, by offering compensation.

“McChrystal’s guidance on protecting civilians obviously is working. But for the 25 percent of casualties that pro-government forces cause, ISAF still doesn’t have a way of properly addressing the harm,” said Sarah Holewinski, executive director of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict.

“Our research in Afghanistan shows that in the vast majority of these cases Afghans receive nothing for deaths, injuries or property losses.”

Insurgents killed civilians in suicide attacks, roadside bombings and firefights. “Civilians are also being deliberately assassinated, abducted and executed if they are perceived as being associated with the government or the international community,” Niland said.

She called on militants to follow the Taliban’s own “code of conduct” which calls for protection of civilians.

Last year was also by far the war’s deadliest for foreign troops, with the United States and Britain each losing more than twice as many soldiers as in any previous year.

The report said unrest and violence were spreading to once calm areas, such as the northeast, although nearly half of all deaths were still in the volatile southern part of Afghanistan.

“Despite promises in 2009, security is getting worse by the day. Politicians and commanders have made many promises about protecting the population, but so far we have not seen the results,” said Mudassir Rasuli, spokesman for the group Afghan NGOs against civilian casualties.

(Additional reporting and writing by Peter Graff, editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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