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Civilian deaths in Afghan War hit record high

KABUL, Afghanistan — Civilian deaths in the Afghan War reached a record high during the first half of this year, a United Nations report said Thursday, documenting a worsening toll of roadside bombs and suicide attacks by Taliban insurgents as well as helicopter-borne airstrikes by coalition forces.

U.N. officials said they'd counted 1,462 civilian deaths from January through June, 80 percent of which they attributed to Taliban militants. Taliban suicide attacks and roadside bombings accounted for nearly half the deaths.

Targeted assassinations of politicians, tribal leaders and other pro-government individuals by the Taliban also rose during this period, with 191 people killed compared with 181 during the first half of last year.

Coalition airstrikes accounted for 79 deaths, the report said, a 14 percent increase compared with 2010. Most were due to airstrikes from Apache helicopters operated by U.S. forces, the report found.

"Afghan children, women and men continue to be killed and injured at an alarming rate," Staffan de Mistura, the ranking U.N. official in Afghanistan, said in a statement.

The U.S.-led coalition had no immediate comment on the report.

One of the factors behind the rise in violence is the Taliban's growing use of "pressure-plate" roadside bombs, powerful explosives that act as land mines but can be triggered by weight of as little as about 22 pounds, the report said. That means that even young children could detonate the bombs if they stepped on them.

"Any civilian who steps on or drives over these has no defense against them and little chance of survival," Georgette Gagnon, the U.N. human rights director in Afghanistan, said in a statement.

The total number of deaths was 14 percent higher than during the same period last year. And May, during which 368 people were killed, was the deadliest month since the U.N. began systematically documenting civilian casualties in 2007.

The spike in violence against civilians has coincided with rising casualties among U.S. troops and raised questions about whether coalition military gains are sustainable as the Pentagon begins drawing down 33,000 "surge" troops. In June, 37 American service members were killed, nearly half of them by small-arms fire, suggesting that the Taliban are fighting to regain control of areas that U.S.-led forces had pushed them out of.

The rising deaths come as a slew of political and economic crises confronts President Hamid Karzai's fragile government. The troubles worsened this week with the murder by a family associate of Karzai's younger half brother, the most powerful figure in Afghanistan's southern Taliban heartland.

The death of the controversial Ahmed Wali Karzai, who often used corruption and warlord-style deal-making to tamp down Taliban violence and keep the government's tenuous hold on pivotal Kandahar province, has opened a power vacuum that many Afghans fear could lead to more conflict.

Underscoring those fears, at least five people were killed and 15 wounded Thursday when a suicide bomb exploded at a Kandahar mosque where hundreds were paying their respects to Ahmed Wali Karzai.

The mourners at the mosque, one of the city's largest, included several top Afghan officials. Among those killed were the chief of the province's clerical council, Hekmatullah Hekmat, and a young boy, according to the provincial governor, Tooryalai Wesa.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which officials and an eyewitness said occurred when a suicide bomber detonated explosives hidden in his turban. Witnesses also said that security forces weren't searching the mourners thoroughly before the attack.

"It was an un-Islamic act," Wesa said at a news conference.

The slain Karzai had been laid to rest Wednesday in an emotional burial service at his family's ancestral cemetery north of Kandahar, in the village of Karz.

(Zohori is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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