Source AP ©

At least 203 civilians are killed by U.S.-led coalition and NATO this year

U.S.-led coalition and NATO forces fighting insurgents in Afghanistan have killed at least 203 civilians so far this year.

Insurgency attacks and military operations have surged in recent weeks, and in the past 10 days more than 90 civilians have been killed by airstrikes and artillery fire targeting Taliban insurgents, said President Hamid Karzai.

On Sunday, another civilian may have been killed when British troops opened fire in a populated area after their convoy was hit by a roadside bomb, officials and witnesses said.

Separate figures from the U.N. and an umbrella organization of Afghan and international aid groups show the numbers of civilians killed by international forces is about equal to those killed by insurgents.

After a seething speech by Karzai on Saturday - in which he accused NATO and U.S. forces of viewing Afghan lives as "cheap" - NATO conceded it had to "do better."

Coalition spokesman Maj. Chris Belcher suggested some civilians reportedly killed by foreign forces may in fact have been killed by insurgents.

"One of the problems is sometimes determining who exactly caused the casualties. It's not always clear if a civilian casualty is caused by an extremist or coalition forces," Belcher said.

Accurate figures for civilian death tolls are hard to come by in Afghanistan, where militants often wear civilian dress and seek shelter in villagers' homes. Furthermore, after a quarter of a century of civil war and conflict, it is not unusual for Afghans to have weapons in their homes.

Much of the violence takes place in remote areas that are too far or too dangerous for independent observers or journalists to reach for verification of the reports.

The AP count of civilian casualties is based on reports from Afghan and foreign officials and witnesses through Saturday. Of the 399 civilian deaths so far this year, 18 civilians were killed in crossfire between Taliban militants and foreign forces.

The U.S. and NATO did not have civilian casualty figures. The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has counted 213 civilians killed by insurgents in the first five months of this year - compared to 207 killed by Afghan and international forces.

ACBAR - the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief - has counted 230 civilians killed in U.S. and NATO operations, basing their figure on reports from the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, Afghan NGO Security Office and the U.N.

The number of civilians killed in militant attacks was about the same as those killed by foreign forces, according to ACBAR's latest figures from about a month ago, said Anja de Beer, director of ACBAR.

"The international forces are here to support the Afghan government. The purpose is to get a better and safer life for the Afghan people," de Beer said. "If in doing so, they're causing more civilian deaths than the people they're fighting against, that doesn't look very good, to put it mildly."

Maj. John Thomas, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, blamed the insurgents for hiding in areas populated by civilians, who are then killed during attacks against militants. But he said "that does not absolve ISAF of the responsibility of doing all it can to minimize civilian casualties."

On Saturday, Karzai accused NATO and U.S.-led troops of carelessly killing scores of Afghan civilians and warned the fight against resurgent Taliban militants could fail unless foreign forces show more restraint.

"Afghan life is not cheap and it should not be treated as such," Karzai said angrily.

On Sunday, Helmand provincial police chief Mohammad Hussain said British gunfire killed one man after the troops were attacked, but it was not clear if the victim was a civilian or a militant involved in the attack.

Raz Mohammad Sayed, director of a local hospital, said one man was killed and another wounded by British gunfire. He referred to both victims as "civilians."

NATO blames the insurgents for hiding among civilians, and insisted that troops had the right to defend themselves if fired upon.

But Michael Shaikh, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Afghanistan, said such arguments are flawed.

"When you're on the ground and your child has been killed by a 2,000-pound bomb, you don't care if the attack was legal or illegal in the laws of war ... That's what NATO is not getting," Shaikh said.

In Helmand's Langar village, Afghan and coalition troops clashed with insurgents and called in airstrikes Saturday, killing more than a dozen militants, one coalition soldier and an Afghan soldier, the coalition said.

Other violence around Afghanistan Sunday killed three policemen and wounded six. Roadside bombs killed three soldiers and wounded five, officials said.

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