Courtesy: "New York Times", 1 May 2011
Taliban Renews Offensive in AfghanistanBy REUTERS
KABUL (Reuters) - Taliban-led insurgents killed at least 11 people across Afghanistan in a renewed springtime offensive on Sunday despite a huge security clampdown, hours after the United Nations pleaded for all sides to avoid civilian casualties.
The hardline Islamists have warned civilians to stay away from public gatherings, military bases and convoys, as well as government offices, because those sites would be the target of a wave of attacks beginning on Sunday.
Both sides of the conflict have vowed to protect civilians -- the civilian toll hit record levels in 2010 -- but more than half of those killed on Sunday were ordinary Afghans.
"Our mission is to make sure that civilians and Afghan people are not affected by now 11 years of conflict," Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. chief in Afghanistan, told Reuters television in his heavily guarded compound in the capital, Kabul.
"What we are worried about, and I think every Afghan is worried about, is whether the Afghan people and the Afghan civilians will be again the victims of a long conflict," de Mistura said.
The vast majority of civilian casualties in Afghanistan are caused by insurgents, figures from the United Nations and other rights groups show, although there are still many caused by foreign hunting militants with air strikes and night raids.
The increasingly sophisticated Taliban communication network quickly sought to counter de Mistura's comments. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said foreign forces must also protect civilians and stop their "rising atrocities".
The new wave of attacks began early on Sunday with what appeared to be a startling and rare tactic -- the use of a child bomber in the dangerous southeastern province of Paktika.
The bomber, wearing a vest packed with explosives, killed four civilians and wounded 12, a government spokesman said. A statement from the governor's office in Paktika, near the Pakistan border, said the bomber was 12 years old.
In neighbouring Ghazni, two police and two civilians were killed in a gunfight after insurgents opened fire on a passing police vehicle in the province's main city, police said. A bomb planted on a bicycle near Ghazni police headquarters wounded 13.
In the volatile south, the governor of Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban, ordered thousands of security forces onto high alert, with police and Afghan soldiers manning checkpoints on every roundabout in Kandahar city.
Gunmen on a motorbike killed an Afghan soldier in Kandahar. In Logar, south of Kabul, two members of a community police unit were killed by a roadside bomb, police officials said.
Senior military commanders have been expecting a spike in violence with the start of the spring and summer "fighting season", although the usual winter lull was not seen as U.S-led forces pressed their attacks against insurgents, particularly in the Taliban's southern heartland.
Quelling violence has taken on even greater importance this year, with a gradual withdrawal of foreign combat troops set to begin in July as part of a handover to Afghan security forces. That withdrawal is set to be completed by the end of 2014.
Senior military officials say recent intelligence reports indicate the fresh campaign of violence will last about a week and be mounted by the Taliban, supported by the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network and other insurgents.
Security has been increased at military bases and government offices across the country, while in Kabul extra police have been stationed at checkpoints known as "the ring of steel".
The Taliban said on Saturday the targets of their attacks would be foreign forces, high-ranking officials of President Hamid Karzai's government, as well companies working for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
Washington and ISAF commanders believe they have made inroads against a growing insurgency since 30,000 extra U.S. troops were sent to Afghanistan last year.
Attacks across Afghanistan hit record levels in 2010, with civilian and military casualties the worst since U.S-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban government in late 2001.
The United Nations has relocated some of its staff in Afghanistan after receiving what it said were credible threats of increased attacks in several locations around the country.
The United Nations has been targeted several times. Seven foreign staff were killed last month when protesters overran a U.N. compound in the north.
De Mistura said indiscriminate use of bombs by the Taliban in cities and elsewhere had caused huge numbers of civilian casualties, while air strikes by the NATO-led force had also caused many deaths.
The number of civilians killed in Afghanistan in 2010 rose 15 percent from the previous year to 2,777, according to U.N figures, with insurgents responsible for about three-quarters of those. "Afghan civilians have paid the price of war for too long," de Mistura said.
(Additional reporting by Ismail Sameem in KANDAHAR; Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Andrew Marshall)
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