Monday, April 16, 2007

2006 bloodiest year since Taliban's fall, rights group says


Associated Press

KABUL — Insurgents committed war crimes by attacking ordinary Afghans and killing 669 civilians in 2006, the heaviest toll since the Taliban's ouster in 2001, according to a report released Monday.

Tallying records from non-governmental organizations and the media, Human Rights Watch counted 189 bombings in 2006 that killed 492 civilians. Another 177 civilians were killed in other attacks including ambushes and executions.

“The insurgents are increasingly committing war crimes, often by directly targeting civilians,” said Joanne Mariner, terrorism and counterterrorism director at the New York-based rights group. Even when targeting security forces, “they generally kill many, many more civilians than they do military personnel.”

Human Rights Watch noted that anti-government forces were not the only ones responsible for civilian deaths, and that at least 230 civilians were killed during coalition and NATO operations last year.

Exact casualty figures from previous years are not available, but the increase in insurgent attacks last year indicate that “2006 was the deadliest year for civilians in Afghanistan since 2001,” the report said.

The data underlines the dangers facing Afghans more than five years after a U.S.-led invasion raised hopes that the country could emerge from decades of war.

Suicide bombings, once rare in Afghanistan, occurred on a regular basis in 2006. Two suicide attacks were reported in 2003, six in 2004, and 21 in 2005. Last year, the number of suicide attacks shot up to at least 136, killing 272 civilians and wounding 531, the 116-page report said.

Eighty of those suicide attacks were on military targets, but they killed nearly five times more civilians than security forces — 181 civilians compared to 37 Afghan or international security forces.

“The Taliban are starting to look like some of the insurgent groups in Iraq,” said Michael Shaikh, who conducted research for the report. “These guys are more about fighting the global jihad. ... It's a much more dangerous Taliban.”

The Taliban have claimed responsibility for more than two-thirds of recorded bomb attacks, mostly in the most volatile south and southeast.

Hezb-i Islami, a faction of which follows renegade former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, appears to be involved in attacks in the east and north, the report said.

The report cited 190 attacks on teachers, school officials, students and schools, up from 91 such attacks in 2005.

Militants have increasingly targeted aid workers, journalists and government employees, condemning them as spies or collaborators. In 2006, the report stated, at least 177 civilians were assassinated.

The recent killing of an Afghan journalist who was captured along with an Italian journalist for whom he was working as a translator and their driver, underscored the situation.

“The Taliban's murders of Afghan journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi and driver Sayed Agha were war crimes,” Ms. Mariner said.

The Italian journalist, Daniele Mastrogiacomo of the daily La Repubblica, was freed after a heavily criticized deal in which the Afghan government released five Taliban insurgents in exchange for him.

The report included comments from witnesses, victims and relatives and said anger over the civilian deaths was focused on the militants.

"I lost my son, brother and nephew because of the Taliban. They say that they are fighting for God and Islam, but they are not; they are killing good and innocent Muslims and Afghans who have done nothing wrong," said a man identified in the report by the pseudonym Abdullah whose shop was destroyed by a suicide car bomb last August in the south.

Human Rights Watch said it hoped its report could shame the increasingly radical Taliban into altering its tactics.

"We don't think that change is easy, but they're not entirely impervious to pressure," Ms. Mariner said.

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