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UN warns of spike in Afghan civilian deaths

In a new report, the UN says there has been a sharp increase in the deaths of women and children in Afghanistan. The Taliban is seeking to expand its territory, with devastating consequences for civilians.

Afghans gathered on the border with Pakistan

Afghans gather on the border with Pakistan after the Taliban seized control of the Afghan side

More than 1,500 civilians were killed in the first six months of 2021, almost half of whom were women and children, the United Nations said in a new report Monday.

It is the sharpest documented increase in killings for those months since the UN began keeping track of Afghan civilian deaths and casualties in 2009.

Deborah Lyons, the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of the UN mission in the country, said: "I implore the Taliban and Afghan leaders to take heed of the conflict's grim and chilling trajectory and its devastating impact on civilians."

"Unprecedented numbers of Afghan civilians will perish and be maimed this year if the increasing violence is not stemmed," she added.

Without a "significant de-escalation of violence," 2021 is set to be the most devastating year for civilian casualties in over a decade, the report said.

Watch video 01:50

Battles between Afghan forces and Taliban escalate

How bad is it for Afghan civilians?

Of the 1,659 civilians killed and 3,254 wounded in the first half of 2021, 46% were women and children. Almost one-third were children, with 468 killed and 1,214 wounded. Women accounted for roughly 14%, with 219 killed and 508 wounded.

The UN said there was a particularly sharp rise in casualties in May and June, when US and NATO troops began their withdrawal and fighting escalated across the country. In those two months alone, 783 people were killed and 1,609 were wounded.

Afghan militiamen join Afghan defense and security forces in mobilizing in the streets with weapons including rifles and RPGs pointed towards the sky

Afghan militiamen join Afghan defense and security forces during a gathering to mobilize local militias against the Taliban

Much of the violence has taken place outside of cities in rural districts. But the UN voiced concern that when the battles eventually reach cities, the consequences for civilians will be catastrophic.

An attack on the Sayed ul-Shuhuda school in the capital Kabul in early May resulted in 85 deaths and over 300 civilian casualties, most of them young girls. No one claimed responsibility for the attack.

There has also been a resurgence of sectarian attacks on the minority Shia Hazara community, resulting in 143 deaths.

A Hazara woman Jawahir Sedaqat, who lost two sons, in explosions late last year in the city of Bamiyan, prays and kisses a flag at a graveyard of her sons on the outskirts of Bamiyan province

Hazara woman Jawahir Sedaqat lost two sons in explosions last year

Taliban seeking military victory

Since the US and NATO began their withdrawal from the country, the Taliban has moved quickly to consolidate battlefield victories, overtake rural districts, and secure strategic border crossings.

The withdrawal is 95% complete and slated to be accomplished by August 31.

Talks between the Afghan government and Taliban negotiators in Doha, Qatar have stalemated since last September, and diplomats and observers say the Taliban seeks a military victory. According to German news agency dpa, the group now controls over half of all districts in Afghanistan.

A member of the Afghan Special Forces in a vehicle convoy fires on Taliban positions in Kandahar this month

A member of the Afghan Special Forces fires at a Taliban position after coming under heavy fire

The UN report said that "the pursuit of a military solution will only increase the suffering of the Afghan people."

While the Taliban have said they do not want to monopolize power, they have also said there will be no peace until the current government and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani are unseated.

ar/nm (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)