KABUL, Afghanistan -- Civilian casualties in the Afghan war fell by 15% in the first half of this year compared with the same period a year ago, the first such decline in five years, the United Nations said Wednesday. However, the first six months of 2012 also saw an alarming jump in the targeted killings of government officials, tribal elders and other dignitaries, the U.N. reported.
The U.N. mission in Afghanistan warned that the drop in civilian deaths and injuries -- which was most pronounced in the first quarter of this year -- may be a temporary trend, with the warm-weather "fighting season" bringing about an increase in violence. A record cold winter had helped dampen insurgent activity early in the year.
The U.N. report blamed 80% of the casualties on "anti-government elements," meaning insurgent groups such as the Taliban and the Haqqani network. It also said improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, were the single biggest threat to civilians, because even if insurgent roadside bombs are mainly intended to kill foreign and Afghan troops, Taliban fighters plant them indiscriminately on routes traveled by ordinary Afghans.
In the period from the start of January through the end of June, the U.N. documented 882 civilian deaths, with 1,593 others injured. During that same time span last year, it had counted 1,167 deaths and 1,760 injuries.
Underscoring a worrisome trend, assassinations and attempted assassinations of government officials and other prominent figures left 255 civilians dead and 101 wounded during the reporting period, according to the U.N. That was a 53% jump from the first half of 2011.
Insurgents use targeted killings as a means of shaking confidence in the government's ability to protect the populace, and to try to frighten people away from public service. Assassinations have cast a shadow on Western efforts to bolster the government and hand over security responsibilities to Afghan forces before the NATO force ends its combat role in 2014.
Also Wednesday, three NATO troops were killed in an attack in eastern Afghanistan, the Western military said. Afghan officials said two suicide bombers struck a coalition foot patrol in Kunar province, which borders Pakistan. A civilian passerby was killed in the attack as well, they said.
-- Hashmat Baktash and Aimal Yaqubi