As the seasonal fighting in Afghanistan resumes, a high number of civilians have been killed as a result of ground battles, said the UN. Overall, more than 650 civilians were killed in the first quarter of 2015.
The latest figures from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) show a continuing trend of record high civilian casualties, with deaths and injuries from ground engagements remaining the leading cause.
While the overall number of casualties decreased by two percent, the number of civilians killed (136) or injured (385) due to ground operations in the first three months of 2015 rose by eight percent compared to the same period in 2014. Some 60 civilians were killed from 200 mortars and rockets, up 43 percent from the same period last year and accounting for half of civilian casualties from ground engagements.
According to the April 12 report, UNAMA documented a total of 1,810 civilian casualties - 655 deaths and 1,155 injured - across the South Asian nation between January 1 and March 31.
Bearing the brunt
Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs remained the second leading cause of deaths and injuries, resulting in 430 civilian casualties (155 civilian deaths and 275 injured), a 19 percent decline from the same period last year.
The data also point out that women and children, in particular, bore the brunt of the conflict-related violence. The latest figures demonstrate a continued rise in women casualties with an increase of 15 percent on the same period last year, said UNAMA, adding that conflict-related violence killed 55 women and injured 117.
At the same time, child casualties surpassed the unprecedented levels recorded last year. There were in total 430 child civilian casualties - 123 deaths and 307 injured.
UNAMA said anti-government forces were responsible for 73 percent of the casualties, with pro-government forces responsible for 14 percent and seven percent attributed to both parties.
"With the seasonal resumption of higher levels of conflict-related violence, the United Nations urges all parties to the conflict to take all necessary measures to protect civilians," said UNAMA chief Nicholas Haysom.
A continuing trend
The latest numbers come just two months after the UN mission revealed that civilian casualty figures had jumped 22 percent in 2014. Nearly 3,700 Afghan civilians were killed in the conflict-stricken country last year, while the number of injured rose to 6,849.
This was the highest rate of civilian casualties since the UN body started collecting data five years ago. With the latest numbers, the total Afghan civilian death toll since 2009 surged to more than 18,000.
The latest data also comes at a critical time in Afghanistan's history. With the end of NATO's ISAF mission, the national army and police are now fully in charge of security in a country plagued by conflict and a resurgent insurgency. The NATO drawdown has also been followed by a reduction of economic and political support from the international community.
Against this backdrop, "Resolute Support," NATO's training and support mission began in 2015. But by and large, the 13,000-strong residual force is not in Afghanistan to fight a war, but rather to help the 350,000 Afghan troops fight the insurgents. One of the training components of the mission, for instance, is to strengthen the Afghan forces' abilities to collect intelligence.
In a DW interview earlier this year, Haysom said that the surge in security incidents appears timed to coincide with the drawdown of international military forces. The fighting also showed that "at least some elements of the Taliban still - wrongly - believe that there can be victory on the battlefield," he said, adding that the increasing impact on civilians caught in the crossfire makes progress on a reconciliation process all the more vital."
But beyond the deaths and injuries, the uptick in violence also caused the total number of internally displaced in the country to swell to more than 800,000 - an eight percent increase from the previous year, a situation which not only aggravates the suffering of ordinary Afghans, but also appears set to continue in the coming months.
"With all signs pointing to increased ground conflict in the coming months, with devastating consequences for civilians, parties must act urgently on the commitments they've made to prevent harm to civilians, especially women and children," said Georgette Gagnon, director of UNAMA's human rights unit.
"The consequences of the conflict go far beyond the horrific loss of life and injury to civilians. Conflict-related violence also devastates Afghan families through displacement, loss of livelihood, destruction of homes and other losses," Gagnon added.