The number of Afghan civilian casualties has fallen for the first time in at least five years, dropping by 15 per cent during the first half of this year compared to the same period last year, the United Nations has said.

A total of 1,145 Afghan non-combatants lost their lives in violence, mostly Taliban attacks, between January 1 and June 30 this year, compared to 1,510 in 2011, the UN said on Wednesday. 

Afghan civilian deaths have been one of the biggest irritants in relations between President Hamid Karzai's government and its Western backers.

The UN said that marked a 15 per cent decline on the 3,654 casualties documented during the same period in 2011, which saw a record number of civilian deaths in the decade-long war.

"This reduction of civilian casualties reverses the trend in which civilian casualties had increased steadily over the previous five years," the UN mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a report.

'Devastating toll'

The findings come as a US-led NATO mission prepares to withdraw the bulk of its 130,000 foreign combat troops from Afghanistan in the next 18 months.

Despite the decline in casualties, the UN warned that the war "continued to take a devastating toll on civilians".

The UN report said the Taliban and other insurgents were responsible for 80 per cent of the casualties while pro-government forces, which include the NATO force, were blamed for 10 per cent. The remaining 10 per cent was attributed to unknown groups.

Civilian casualties resulting from targeted killings by the Taliban and other anti-government forces increased by 53 per cent in 2012 with UN documenting the death of 255 civilians in 237 separate incidents.

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Aerial operations by NATO forces have continued to cause more civilian deaths and injuries than any other tactic used by pro-government forces since the UN began documenting civilian casualties.

However, the UN report said civilian casualties from air strikes were down 23 per cent compared to the same period in 2011.

Women and children accounted for about 30 per cent of this year's casualties - up one per cent from the same period in 2011 - killed or wounded mostly in Taliban roadside bombings with IEDs, the insurgents' weapon of choice.

"Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) remained the leading cause of conflict-related deaths of women and children followed by ground engagements," the UN said.

Al Jazeera's Jennifer Glasse, reporting from Kabul, says the report also indicates that attacks on educational institutions in the country have increased 200 per cent over the last year.

Citing the report, our correspondent said UNAMA stressed that the figures were signs of possible "worse things to come" and that the Central Asian nation "remains a difficult and dangerous place for civilians to live".

More displaced

It also said the number of Afghans forced to abandon their homes by the conflict was up 14 per cent on the same period last year, bringing to 114,900 the number of internally displaced people.

The war has forced tens of thousands of Afghans to leave their homes for safer places, often under extreme financial hardship.

The UN also highlighted concern about human rights abuses, mostly in the form of "parallel judicial structures" led by the Taliban and other anti-government fighters that meted out punishments that include executions, amputations and lashings.

It said in areas of limited government authority, "anti-government elements" were able to "carry out serious human rights abuses with impunity".

For example, in February a Taliban court convicted a teenager on charges of spying for Afghan security forces and cut his ear off in punishment in the northwestern province of Badghis province.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies