KABUL — Civilian deaths in the escalating Afghan war soared by 24 percent during the first half of 2009 compared with the same period last year, the United Nations said Friday, blaming most of the casualties on Taliban attacks launched with little regard for civilian lives.
The U.N. Assistance Mission to Afghanistan also pointed to stepped-up military operations by the United States and its allies, especially airstrikes, for the steady increase in Afghan civilian casualties over the past two years.
However, the report also said the number of civilians killed by the Taliban and other "anti-government forces" during the first half of the year was double those attributed to the U.S.-led coalition and Afghan government forces. The U.N. termed that a "significant shift" from 2007, when the coalition was responsible for 41 percent of civilian deaths.
Both the U.S. and some elements of the Taliban appear sensitive to the issue of civilian casualties, fearing a loss of support among the embattled population.
This month, the new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, issued orders to curb the use of airstrikes to hold down civilian casualties.
A new Taliban "code of conduct," attributed to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, instructs fighters to make "the utmost effort" to avoid killing civilians and to curb the use of suicide attacks.
Despite the Taliban code, the U.N. report said insurgent suicide attacks and roadside bombings claimed more civilian lives "than any other tactic used by the parties to the conflict" and were launched "in violation of the relevant principles of international law."
"Far from taking action to minimize the impact of their activities on civilians, sectors of the armed opposition appear to deliberately favor the use of indiscriminate tactics, such as the use of IEDs," the report said, referring to improvised explosive devices.
"Although such attacks are frequently directed against military or government targets, they are often carried out in crowded areas with apparent disregard for the extensive injury and death they cause to civilians," the report added.
According to the U.N., at least 1,013 civilians were killed in the first six months of this year, compared with 818 for the same period in 2008 -- an increase of 24 percent.
Of those, 595 died as a result of Taliban attacks, many of them against "civilian traffic, residential compounds and marketplaces," the report said. International and Afghan government forces killed another 310 civilians, including 200 in 40 airstrikes, according to the U.N., and the 108 other civilian deaths could not be attributed to either side.
The report was released at the end of the bloodiest month for U.S. and NATO forces in the nearly eight-year war.
At least 42 U.S service members and 31 from other international military forces were killed in July, according to military announcements.