By Jim Loney
KABUL, May 28 (Reuters) - U.N. officials in Afghanistan said on Monday that up to 380 civilians were killed in the Afghan conflict in the first four months of 2007 and called on Western military forces and the Taliban to respect laws protecting civilians.
NATO and the U.S.-led coalition forces have been under fire for a recent surge in civilian casualties in the nearly 6-year-old war against the Taliban, ousted from government for harbouring al Qaeda in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
Several people who described themselves as residents phoned reporters on Monday to say that 20 civilians were killed in an air strike by foreign troops in Girishk district of southern Helmand province on Sunday.
Earlier in the day, the U.S.-led coalition said its air raid in the area on Sunday had killed an estimated two dozen militants in a ten-hour battle after an attack against a coalition and Afghan police convoy.
There was no immediate way to verify either side's accounts.
Afghans have staged angry protests in recent weeks against aerial bombing by Western forces and President Hamid Karzai has warned that Afghans' patience with foreign troops is wearing thin. "International humanitarian law is clear. The protection and safety of civilians must come first and foremost," Richard Bennett, the U.N.'s top human rights officer in Afghanistan, said at a news conference in Kabul. "This principle needs to be respected by all parties to this conflict."
Fighting has picked up in recent weeks following the usual winter lull. Taliban suicide bombers strike several times a week and NATO and the U.S. coalition report clashes with Taliban fighters nearly every day.
Officials in Western capitals have expressed concern that the surging number of civilian casualties risks damaging relations with ordinary Afghans, many of who initially welcomed foreign troops.
U.N. officials said it was difficult to determine the exact number of civilians killed recently because they had limited access to remote locations and conflicting information from villagers and the combatants.
But pressed for a number, Bennett said: "We believe that in the first four months of the year there was in the range of 320 to 380 civilians killed."
This number is much higher than one offered last week by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, which said about 136 civilians had been killed to date this year.
Reluctant to directly accuse foreign forces of violating international human rights laws, U.N. officials said civilian casualties in war are often unavoidable but the use of force must be proportional to the military advantage gained through its use.
They cited an example of a suicide bomber who blows himself up in a crowded market as an example of how the insurgents use excessive force that violates international humanitarian laws.
NATO said last week that 85 people, including 40 civilians, died in the first 23 days of May from improvised explosive devices, including suicide and roadside bombs.
"Insurgent groups and their leadership must stop the wanton disregard they have shown for innocent life including suicide bomb attacks, the use of IEDs, abductions, beheadings and the deliberate use of civilian locations to plan and launch attacks," Bennett said.
Asked for a similar example of foreign or Afghan military forces using such excessive force, Bennett cited a March 4 incident in which U.S. forces opened fire on civilians on a road near Jalalabad, east of the capital. A U.S. military official apologised for the deaths of 19 Afghans and the wounding of 50.
NATO and U.S. officials say they take strict measures limit aerial bombing in order to avoid civilian casualties and accuse the Taliban of using civilians as human shields. (Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin)
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