KABUL (AFP) - The number of civilians killed and wounded in Afghanistan jumped 22 per cent in 2014, the United Nations said on Wednesday, as Nato troops withdrew from combat, leaving government forces to battle a raging Taliban insurgency.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) attributed the rise to an intensification in ground fighting, resulting in a total of 10,548 civilian casualties last year, compared with the 2013 figure of 8,637.
The number of civilian deaths rose 25 per cent to 3,699, while the number of injured was up 21 per cent to 6,849. The total casualty figure is the highest recorded in a single year since the UN began compiling its reports in 2009.
The total number of civilian casualties since 2009 now stands at 17,774 killed and 29,971 injured.
UNAMA had previously noted a leap in civilian casualties linked to the intensification in ground fighting between government and insurgent forces, in its last report published in July 2014.
For the first time since 2009, more civilians were killed by ground engagements (34 per cent) than by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the insurgent-made bombs that have previously been the biggest killer.
The report said the increasing use of explosive weapons systems such as mortars, rockets and grenades in civilian-populated areas had resulted in "devastating consequences".
As in 2013, the UN estimated that close to three-quarters of civilian casualties were caused by "anti-government elements" (72 per cent), far ahead of those caused by government forces including international forces (14 per cent).
Ten per cent of all casualties could not be clearly attributed to either side.
The report also documented a 40 per cent increase in casualties among children (714 killed, 1,760 injured) compared with the previous year and a 21 per cent rise in casualties among women (298 killed, 611 injured).
The report also underlined the dire social and economic consequences of civilian losses on Afghan society, with the deaths or injuries of men often leaving their wives as the sole breadwinners of their households, forcing them to marry off their daughters or take children out of school to work.
"For Afghan women and children, the anguish of losing a husband and father in the conflict is often only the beginning of their suffering and hardship," said UNAMA director of human rights Georgette Gagnon.
"Rising civilian deaths and injuries in 2014 attests to a failure to fulfil commitments to protect Afghan civilians from harm," added Mr Nicholas Haysom, the UNAMA's head.
"Parties to the conflict should understand the impact of their actions and take responsibility for them, uphold the values they claim to defend, and make protecting civilians their first priority."
The Taleban dispute the UN figures, which attribute the majority of casualties to their fighters, and have repeatedly stated their desire to limit the loss of civilian life.
In its recommendations, UNAMA urged the Taleban to cease its use of IEDs, while asking government forces to stop using mortars and rockets in densely populated areas.
It also demanded Kabul disband government militias and hold accountable those members of armed groups who carry out rights abuses.
The annual summer "fighting season" in 2014 was particularly intense for the country, coinciding with the phased withdrawal of Nato forces by December and a protracted political crisis triggered by a fraud-marred presidential election.
The next season, due to begin in April or May, will be the first without the presence of foreign combat troops and is seen as a crucial test for Afghan forces.
Local troops this week launched a pre-emptive offensive in southern Afghanistan, with the Taliban responding with its own attacks that killed 26 policemen on Monday and Tuesday.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has called on the Taleban to negotiate for peace, but the militants have thus far refused to hold direct talks with his government.