KABUL - The number of civilians killed or wounded in Afghanistan last year was the highest recorded since 2009, the UN said Sunday, with children paying a particularly heavy price.
There were 11,002 civilian casualties in 2015 including 3,545 deaths, the UN said in its annual report on Afghan civilians in armed conflict, a four per cent rise over the previous high in 2014.
"The harm done to civilians is totally unacceptable," said Nicholas Haysom, the UN's special representative for Afghanistan.
"We call on those inflicting this pain on the people of Afghanistan to take concrete action to protect civilians and put a stop to the killing and maiming." Fighting and attacks in populated areas and major cities were described as the main causes of civilian deaths in 2015, underscoring a push by Taliban militants into urban centres "with a high likelihood of causing civilian harm", the report stated.
The UN began compiling the annual report in 2009.
Including Taliban-claimed attacks, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan assigned responsibility for 62 per cent of total civilian casualties in 2015 to anti-government elements.
But the report also noted a 28 per cent year-on-year surge in the number of casualties caused by pro-government forces, including the Afghan army and international troops.
Seventeen per cent of all casualties in 2015 were caused by such forces, the report said. It was not possible to say which side caused the remaining 21 per cent of casualties.
The report criticised Afghan forces in particular for their reliance on explosives in populated areas.
US and other international troops moved from a combat to a training, advisory and assistance role in Afghanistan on January 1, 2015, leaving Afghan forces to take the lead in fighting the resurgent militants as they targeted towns and cities.
"Why did they fire this rocket? Why was it necessary?" the father of a man killed in shelling by the Afghan army in a village in Wardak province in December was quoted as saying in the report.
Nine people died in that attack, according to the report, highlighting the dangers to civilians during ground engagements.
"Can you imagine how difficult it is when your son is lying in his own blood and you are crying for him?" the father is quoted as saying.
The statistics in the report do not "reflect the real horror", Haysom told a press conference Sunday.
"The real cost... is measured in the maimed bodies of children, the communities who have to live with loss, the grief of colleagues and relatives, the families who make do without a breadwinner, the parents who grieved the lost children, the children who grieved the lost parents," he said.
One in every four casualties in 2015 was a child, with the report documenting a 14 per cent increase in child casualties over the year.
"Tell these people not to attack children," it quotes a 12-year-old survivor of a mortar attack that killed four others as saying. "I want to study, not to die." While fighting and improvised explosive devices were the top two killers of children, unexploded ordnance picked up and played with by curious and unsuspecting youngsters also claimed a heavy toll, killing 113 children - an average of two a week - and injuring 252 more in 2015.
Women also paid a heavy price, with a 37 per cent surge in female casualties. One in every ten casualties recorded was a woman, the report said.
The document highlighted an increase in women being targeted for alleged moral crimes, calling the executions and lashings a "disturbing trend", and saying the UN plans to release a separate report on such incidents soon.
Chillingly, the report documented a doubling of civilian casualties due to the deliberate targeting by militants of judges, prosecutors and judicial institutions. There were 188 such cases last year, of which 46 involved fatalities.
The Taliban claimed 95 per cent of such targeted attacks, the report said.
While ground engagements were the largest cause of civilian casualties, improvised explosive devices came second, the report said, adding that the use of such weaponry violated international law and could constitute war crimes.
It reflects "a disconnect between commitments made and the harsh reality on the ground", said the director of the UN's human rights mission in Afghanistan, Danielle Bell.