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Afghanistan war: UN says more civilians killed by allies than insurgents

Media captionEarlier this year, the BBC was given exclusive access to Afghan ambulance workers

Pro-government forces, including Nato allies, killed more civilians in Afghanistan in the first half of 2019 than insurgents did, UN figures show.

It is the first time in the 18-year conflict that this has occurred and comes amid a ferocious US air campaign against the Taliban.

Some 717 civilians were killed by Afghan and Nato-led forces, compared to 531 by militants, the UN said.

The data comes as Washington continues to seek a swift end to the war.

Air strikes, mostly carried out by American warplanes, killed 363 people, including 89 children, in the first six months of the year, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama).

Washington is holding negotiations with the Taliban to try to strike a deal for a troop withdrawal while simultaneously carrying out an intense air campaign against them.

The militants refuse to hold formal negotiations with the Afghan government until there is an agreed timetable for the US withdrawal.

On Monday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed that President Donald Trump wants forces in Afghanistan reduced by the 2020 US presidential election.

The existence of an unofficial deadline has deepened fears in Kabul that Washington might rush into a deal with the Taliban to allow at least a partial withdrawal of troops before the US election, despite any concerns its Afghan government partners might have.

US negotiators are aiming to reach a deal with the Taliban by September and have been negotiating with them in the gulf state of Qatar.

But the bloody war in Afghanistan has continued unabated amid the peace talks

In April, UN data showed that pro-government forces had caused more civilian deaths than insurgents (the Taliban, the Islamic State group and others) in the first quarter of 2019. The latest data shows that this unprecedented trend is continuing.

However the UN says that total civilian casualties are down. There were 3,812 deaths and injuries in the first six months of 2019, the lowest total for the first half of a year since 2012.

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Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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The number of civilians killed by air strikes more than doubled in the same period in 2018

Ground engagements remained the leading cause of civilian casualties overall, accounting for one-third of the total, followed by improvised explosive bombings and aerial operations.

Despite the decrease in casualties, the toll on civilians remains “shocking and unacceptable”, Unama said. It documented 985 civilian casualties (deaths and injuries) from insurgent attacks that had deliberately targeted civilians from 1 January to 31 June.

“Parties to the conflict may give differing explanations for recent trends, each designed to justify their own military tactics,” said Richard Bennett, Unama’s head of human rights. “The fact remains that only a determined effort to avoid civilian harm, not just by abiding by international humanitarian law but also by reducing the intensity of the fighting, will decrease the suffering of civilian Afghans.”

The US military rejected Unama’s findings, saying its own collection of evidence was more accurate and that its forces in Afghanistan “always work to avoid harm to civilian non-combatants”. But it did not give its own figures for civilian casualties.

Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said civilians were paying a “terrible price” as a result of air strikes and night raids that appeared meant to pressure the Taliban in negotiations.

“Although US military officers in Kabul repeatedly claim to take civilian casualties seriously, they do not conduct adequate investigations to determine accurate numbers or understand targeting errors,” she told the BBC, adding that Afghan government investigations were “even worse”.

“The usual claim – that the Taliban hide among civilians – is not an excuse for killing and injuring civilians in such numbers, and in any case is no excuse for what in some cases may amount to war crimes.”

Afghanistan war: UN says more civilians killed by allies than insurgents

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