KABUL (AFP) - The number of civilians killed and wounded in Afghanistan's war rose 14 per cent last year, the United Nations said on Saturday, with deaths almost reaching the record of 2011.
Civilians killed or wounded in the crossfire of fighting between government and Taleban-led insurgent forces was a marked new trend in 2013, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in its annual report.
UNAMA put this down to the reduction of ground and air operations by the United States-led Nato force as it withdraws after more than a decade of war.
Afghan forces have been taking an increasing role in the fight against the Taleban as the coalition withdraws by the end of 2014.
About 58,000 Nato-led combat troops who are still in Afghanistan are due to leave by the end of the year.
The UN report voiced concern at civilians suffering beatings, looting and even summary executions at the hands of Afghan forces.
A total of 8,615 civilian casualties were recorded in 2013 - 2,959 killed and 5,656 wounded - up 14 per cent from 2012.
The rise in deaths, up 7 per cent from 2012, and injuries, up 17 percent, reverses the decline recorded last year.
The death toll almost matches the peak figure of 3,133 recorded in 2011.
The conflict has claimed the lives of 14,064 civilians in the past five years.
UNAMA attributed the vast majority - 74 per cent - of civilian deaths and injuries to "anti-government elements" led by the Taleban.
The number of civilians killed or wounded in crossfire during ground battles rose 43 per cent on 2012, with 534 dead and 1,793 wounded.
Only improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the Taleban's weapon of choice, caused more civilian casualties, the report said.
UNAMA said the new trend reflected the "changing dynamics of the conflict" as Nato handed over security duties to the Afghans.
"The fifth and final transfer of security responsibility from international military forces to Afghan security forces began in June 2013 and left security gaps in some areas that Afghan forces had not yet filled," the report said.
"As a result, certain areas were vulnerable to attack by anti-government elements which often led to civilian casualties."
The trend highlights the challenges faced by local forces as their better-equipped foreign partners leave and comes as Washington and Kabul squabble over a proposed security deal that would allow some US forces to stay on beyond 2014.
Washington is proposing that 5,000 to 10,000 US soldiers are deployed from 2015 to train and assist Afghan security forces in their battle against the Taleban militants.
But President Hamid Karzai has said that before he signs the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), the US must stop military operations and bring the Taleban to the negotiating table.
Mr Karzai, who has ruled the country since the fall of the Taleban in 2001, has suggested that a decision on whether to sign the BSA would fall to his successor, to be chosen in elections due on April 5.
The Taleban have threatened to target the campaign, and the Afghan police and army face a major challenge with little support from the dwindling number of Nato troops.
UNAMA recorded 25 attacks on election workers and facilities in 2013, resulting in four civilian deaths.
"Current risk assessments indicate that insecurity will impact participation of civilians in the 2014 elections in some areas," the report said.
The paper voiced concern at what it called "verified reports" of rights violations by Afghan national security forces.
It highlighted an incident in eastern Kunduz province where it said a dozen people were beaten for supposedly supporting the insurgency.
"Pro-government armed groups, in full view of Afghan national security forces, carried out house-to-house searches, looting homes of mobile phones, cash, gold, jewellery, school materials, crops and livestock," it said.
It also reiterated longstanding concerns about the Afghan Local Police (ALP), branded by critics as a thuggish militia.
The report said civilian casualties attributed to the ALP tripled from 2012 to 121 - 32 killed and 89 wounded.
It said most of these came from ALP members carrying out "summary executions, punishments and revenge actions".