U.N.: May Deadliest For Civilians In Afghan War

June 12, 2011

Quil Lawrence

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Attacks across Afghanistan killed at least 21 on Saturday, including police and soldiers, but mostly civilians.

In one incident in the southern province of Kandahar, a remote-controlled bomb destroyed a minibus killing men, women and eight children. As the summer fighting season begins, civilian deaths are outstripping military casualties. The United Nations reported this weekend that May 2011 was the deadliest for civilians since the war began.

U.S.-led NATO soldiers say they have driven the Taliban out of key territories in the south of Afghanistan, and that insurgents are desperately fighting to win it back. Taliban spokesmen say they are targeting the Afghan government, foreign soldiers and any Afghan who has the slightest association with them. Either way, the result is funeral after funeral for regular Afghans caught in the crossfire.

"Month by month, civilian casualties have been increasing, there's no doubt about that," said Georgette Gagnon, director of human rights for the U.N. mission in Kabul.

Gagnon says the U.N. hasn't recorded such dire numbers since it began keeping track of civilian casualties in 2007. She fears a bloody summer.

"We're very concerned about this because, historically, civilian harm increases over the summer fighting months, and we've only just begun the summer now," she said. "So we are urging all parties to increase their efforts to protect civilians right now."

The U.N. blames the Taliban and other insurgents for 82 percent of the 368 civilian casualties in May — roughly consistent with Afghan monitoring organizations. While the Taliban claims in the media to avoid civilian targets, explosions in crowded markets are common. On Saturday, a bomb concealed in an ice-cream cart killed one child and wounded several.

The insurgents' most effective weapons are bombs and booby traps, many of them powerful enough to rip through heavily armored military trucks. Many of these bombs are set off by simple pressure plates with no distinction whether they kill soldiers or civilians.

A spokesman for the Kandahar governor denounced the Taliban for Saturday's bombing of a minibus full of men women and children.

President Hamid Karzai's office also released a statement, but the president's condemnations of the Taliban tend to be muted. Karzai is seen to be courting the insurgents for a peace process he hopes will end the war.

In a recent news conference, Karzai went as far as to suggest that many of the attacks claimed by the Taliban might have been carried out by someone else. He didn't say who.

"I pity the Taliban that they have no one to speak for them to say they did not carry out these attacks," he said.

By contrast, Karzai slams the U.S. and NATO forces for civilian deaths in almost every public appearance. According to the U.N. report, of the civilians killed in May, Afghan and foreign forces caused about 12 percent; 3 percent were attributed to NATO airstrikes.

U.S. officials say Karzai's speeches contribute to anti-American sentiment in a population that the U.N. suggests is less and less safe as the war wears on.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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