Civilian deaths rise in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — Civilian deaths in the last month jumped by one-third over the same period a year ago, the Afghan government said Sunday.

The surge in noncombatant fatalities is considered particularly worrisome in advance of a major Western military offensive in Kandahar province this spring and summer. Typically, intensified fighting between insurgents and foreign forces brings a corresponding spike in civilian casualties.

Afghanistan's Interior Ministry said 173 civilians were killed between March 21 and April 21, the most recent period for which figures were available. That represented a 33 percent increase from the same dates in 2009, ministry spokesman Zemari Bashary said at a news conference in Kabul.

Bashary said the deaths, coupled with the injuries of 380 civilians, were largely caused by explosions — either suicide bombings or roadside bombs. The latest example of that came Sunday, when officials in Paktia province, near the Pakistan border, reported a civilian minibus had hit an improvised explosive device, or IED, wrecking it and killing or maiming most of those aboard.

Conflicting reports of the number of dead and injured could not immediately be resolved, but it appeared at least half a dozen people had been killed and approximately twice as many hurt, with women and children among the casualties.

IEDs are almost always planted by insurgents with the aim of striking military convoys, but civilians travel the same roads, and their rickety cars and buses — usually packed with passengers — are far more vulnerable to attack than the armored vehicles used by troops.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.