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Afghan civilian deaths rise sharply in 2008

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  • NEW: Afghan civilian deaths up 60 percent from last year, U.N. says
  • NEW: Increase attributed to intensifying Taliban attacks, roadside bombs
  • Troop deaths also up from 2007 as June marks deadliest month since war began
  • British NATO soldier dies in mine explosion in Helmand province
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KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Civilian deaths in Afghanistan have risen sharply in the past year, largely due to more Taliban attacks and roadside bombings, U.N. officials said Sunday.

NATO soldiers sit in their vehicle in an Afghan province freed from Taliban forces.

NATO soldiers sit in their vehicle in an Afghan province freed from Taliban forces.

Afghan civilian deaths jumped from 430 in the first six months of 2007 to 698 so far this year, an increase of 60 percent, said John Holmes, the United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs.

"It is clear that the international military forces are making every effort to minimize civilian casualties," Holmes said.

"Nevertheless, these problems are still there, and we need to deal with them and make sure that the safety of civilians comes first and international humanitarian law is respected," he said.

Taliban insurgents forces have shifted from direct attacks on international troops toward the use of "civilian-blind" measures such as roadside bombings and suicide attacks, said Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

At the same time, he said, civilian deaths blamed on government forces and U.S. and NATO troops has declined in the first six months of 2008, largely due to pressure from Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

About 60 percent of civilian deaths in 2008 are blamed on anti-government forces, up from less than half in 2007.

Increased Taliban attacks on aid projects also have left 78 of Afghanistan's 398 districts off-limits to relief workers, Siddique said.

"Increasingly, we're seeing targets of schools, of radio stations, of health clinics -- all in an effort to halt progress and keep people in fear," he said.

A total of 565 aid convoys came under attack in 2007, with hundreds of tons of food hijacked. As recently as Sunday, a convoy of 100 tons of food aid came under attack outside Kandahar, with several trucks burned and looted, he said.

"Thankfully, we're not getting any report of death or injuries," he said.

Afghanistan is the original front in the "war on terrorism," which was launched after al Qaeda's September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

A U.S.-led invasion after the attacks pushed out the Taliban, which had allowed al Qaeda to operate from its territory, but the Islamic fundamentalist militia has regrouped along and across the mountainous border with Pakistan.

Coinciding with the rise in civilian deaths in 2008 is an increase in attacks on American and allied forces, which are up 40 percent since last year

The death toll of U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan in June also climbed to more than 40, making it the deadliest month since the war began.

An explosion in southern Afghanistan killed a British soldier serving with NATO on Saturday, the British Defense Ministry said Sunday.

The soldier died when he was struck by a mine in Lashkar Gah, the capital city of Helmand province, the ministry said. He and his unit were investigating a report of a rocket-propelled grenade attack on a civilian aircraft at a nearby airfield, it said.

"When investigating this, they dismounted their vehicles and what is believed to have been a legacy anti-Personnel mine detonated, killing the soldier instantly," the ministry statement said.

Most of the soldiers serving in Helmand are British. Helmand province is Afghanistan's top poppy-producing region and a major front in the war against the Taliban. Provincial authorities there have blamed militants for a spate of recent deadly attacks.

NATO and Afghan force operations kept the insurgency down in 2007 by killing or capturing key leaders and clearing out Taliban safe havens, but a Pentagon report issued last week predicted the Taliban would be back in 2008.

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