KABUL, Afghanistan — The number of civilians killed by U.S.-led forces and their Afghan allies dropped 26 percent last year, the United Nations reported Wednesday.
But total civilian deaths rose 15 percent, the U.N. said, fed by a 28 percent increase in Taliban-caused deaths, including a doubling of assassinations of government workers and pro-government tribal leaders in what the U.N. called "the most alarming trend in 2010."
The U.N. called for "urgent" action from both sides to do more to protect civilian lives.
Overall, 2,777 civilians were killed in 2010, the U.N. said in its annual report on civilians caught up in Afghanistan's war. Of those, 440 died because of actions by the U.S.-led international forces or Afghan security forces — 16 percent of the total.
The vast majority of the killings — 2,085, or 75 percent — came at the hands of the Taliban, the U.N. said, including 462 assassinations. Nine percent of the deaths couldn't be attributed to one side or the other, the report said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai last week said civilian casualties were the biggest source of tension between his government and the U.S. and angrily rejected an apology from Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S.-led forces, for the mistaken killing of nine Afghan boys who were gathering firewood when they were fired on by coalition helicopters.
But the drop last year in U.S.-caused deaths, even as the U.S. dramatically increased the number of troops in Afghanistan and launched assaults in Taliban strongholds in the south, suggests that U.S. efforts to cut civilian casualties are working.
Steffan de Mistura, head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, said that the world body was sending a "strong message to the Taliban" to curb attacks that kill civilians. He also called on coalition forces to show greater restraint.
"We're also reminding and requesting international forces: One civilian victim is one too many," de Mistura said. "Let's not forget that the whole purpose of the international engagement in Afghanistan is the protection of civilians."
U.S. military commanders imposed restrictions in 2009 on the use of air power in response to Taliban attacks, in an effort to curb civilian casualties. Still, strikes by fighter jets and helicopters were the most deadly tactic used by coalition forces in 2010, causing 171 deaths.
Night raids and other search operations, a controversial tactic that's become a coalition mainstay since Petraeus took command last summer, accounted for 80 deaths.
Taliban suicide attacks killed 237, the U.N said, and roadside bombs, known as Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, caused 904 deaths. The U.N. said these methods, which the Taliban have used increasingly to counter the coalition's overwhelming force, violate international law and Islamic principles.
In recent weeks, a spate of Taliban attacks struck civilians, including bombings of sports events and a shooting spree at a bank.
The U.N. also harshly criticized the Taliban's use of assassination and executions, which accounted for more than a fifth of Taliban-caused deaths and keeps people from running for office, taking government jobs or participating in development projects.
"The social and psychological effects and violations of human rights associated with assassinations are more devastating than a body count would suggest," the U.N. said. "Neither Afghan national security nor international military forces have been able to protect civilians from assassinations."
(Shah is McClatchy special correspondent.)
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