Afghan and international forces, including NATO countries', killed more civilians in the first three months of this year than the Taliban and fighters from other armed groups, a new United Nations report says.
According to findings from the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), released on Wednesday, at least 305 civilians were killed by pro-government forces between January and March, 52.5 percent of all deaths in that period.
"There was a 23 percent decrease in overall civilian casualties as compared to the same period last year and is the lowest for a first quarter since 2013," the UN report said.
The decrease was largely due to fewer deaths and injuries from suicide attacks using improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which may have been in part because of a harsh winter.
"It is unclear whether the decrease in civilian casualties was influenced by any measures taken by parties to the conflict to better protect civilians, or by the ongoing talks between parties to the conflict," the report said.
'Act with impunity'
Casualties caused by pro-government forces, 608 in all (305 deaths and 303 injuries), were up 39 percent from the same period last year.
The report singled out a sharp uptick in casualties caused by search operations, especially those carried out by Afghan intelligence service special forces, or the Khost protection force, both supported by international troops, which "appear to act with impunity outside of the governmental chain of command".
Air operations by international forces caused 140 deaths.
Air attacks by Afghan forces, ground engagements and search operations were the other causes of casualties by pro-government elements.
US forces' spokesman in Afghanistan, Colonel Dave Butler, responded to the report saying: "We reserve the right of self-defence of our forces as well as the Afghan security forces. The best way to end the suffering of non-combatants is to end the fighting through an agreed-upon reduction in violence on all sides."
The report also said that the Taliban and other armed groups were responsible for at least 227 civilian deaths and 736 civilian injuries, 54.3 percent of all casualties.
The Taliban, which was removed from power by US-led forces in 2001, has been waging a bloody rebellion against the country's Western-backed government.
Pro-government forces have been struggling to combat the group, which holds sway over nearly half of the country.
Civilians have repeatedly been caught up in the clashes, with the UN statistics showing more than 32,000 killed and 60,000 injured in the past 10 years.
Last year was the deadliest for civilians, according to the UN, which has been compiling statistics on civilian casualties in Afghanistan since 2009.
'It's not just my family'
In February, hundreds of Afghans protested in the country's southern Helmand province after at least nine civilians, including women and children, were killed during an overnight operation against a supposed Taliban hideout.
In September last year, Masih Rahman's family of 12 - his wife, four daughters, three sons and four nephews - were killed when an air attack flattened their home in Afghanistan's central Maidan Wardak province.
"It's not just my family, there are dozens of families just like mine who have been lost in bombings," Rahman said.
He has sought redress from the UN and has taken his case to Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, which put out its own report on civilian casualties on Tuesday.
In that report, the commission said 11,212 civilians were killed or wounded between March 31, 2018, and March 31 this year.
The commission said that at least 75,316 Afghan civilians have been killed in the past decade.
"A shocking number of civilians continue to be killed and maimed each day," said Tadamichi Yamamoto, the UN secretary-general's special representative for Afghanistan.
He also said that the Taliban and other armed groups need to stop deliberately targeting civilians and using improvised bombs, and pressed pro-government forces "to take immediate measures to mitigate the rising death toll and suffering caused by air strikes and search operations".