AFGHANISTAN: Dip in civilian deaths in first two months of 2010

KABUL, 1 March 2010 (IRIN) - The number of civilian deaths caused by the conflict in Afghanistan in the first two months of 2010 was slightly lower than in the same period in 2009, according to two Afghan human rights groups.

Some 163 civilians died and 187 were wounded in violent incidents in different parts of the country in January and February 2010, compared to 201 deaths in the same period of 2009, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) said.

"Ninety-two civilian deaths have been attributed to the armed opposition and 71 to pro-government Afghan and foreign forces," Fareed Hamidi, a commissioner of the AIHRC, told IRIN.

The Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM), a non-government rights body, had slightly different figures: 201 civilian deaths in the first two months of 2010 as against 297 in 2009.

ARM said it gathers data from a variety of sources including local and international media, government officials, provincial councils, NGOs and local people. AIHRC said it verifies violent incidents through its provincial offices and a "civilian casualty verification team".

The figures may come as a surprise given the major anti-Taliban military operation which began on 13 February in the southern province of Helmand.

"Suicide attacks, improvised bombs, air strikes and crossfire between belligerent parties caused most of the civilian deaths over the past two months," Ajmal Samadi, ARM's director, told IRIN.

He said at least 45 civilians had died in Helmand and Uruzgan provinces, southern Afghanistan, as a result of airstrikes and military operations by pro-government Afghan and foreign forces from 13 to 23 February 2010.

Jeff Lifton, a spokesman of the NATO-led forces in Kabul, regretted the deaths of 15 civilians killed by foreign forces during the offensive in Helmand's Nad Ali District; and NATO's top military commander in Afghanistan apologized on 22 February for the death of several civilians in an air strike in Uruzgan Province.

No apology

Taliban insurgents do not usually publically apologize for the harm they cause to civilians, though they claimed responsibility for the assault on a guest house in the centre of Kabul on 26 February in which, according to President Hamid Karzai's office, [] 13 civilians, including six foreigners, were killed.

On 28 February an improvised roadside bomb allegedly planted by the Taliban in Helmand's Nawzad District killed at least seven people and injured five others, the Interior Ministry said.

"Verbally the warring sides respect civilian protection but in practice they all have killed an alarming number of civilians. We've had enough empty promises. It is time for all to stop killing civilians," said ARM's Samadi.

A human rights unit of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which has been tracking civilian casualties since 2007, said it publishes figures twice a year. In January and February 2009 it recorded 290 civilian deaths. []

Last year was the deadliest year for Afghan civilians since the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001, according to rights watchdogs and UNAMA, and there are no signs of the conflict abating in 2010, given a major US/NATO troop surge.