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More Afghan Civilians Dying In Ground Combat, U.N. Finds

By Hashmat Baktash and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD — Accelerating a grim trend in the evolving war in Afghanistan, civilian casualties rose sharply in in the first half of this year due to heavier ground combat between government forces and insurgents in populated areas, the United Nations reported Tuesday.

Through the end of June, the U.N. mission in Afghanistan documented 1,564 civilian deaths and 3,289 injured. The total represented a 24 percent increase over the same period last year and was particularly devastating for children, whose casualties as a result of ground operations more than doubled.

The statistics were a reminder that the hostilities are far from over even as U.S.-led international forces prepare to depart the country by the end of the year. Afghanistan also is mired in a tense standoff over a disputed presidential election that threatens to unleash violence between rival political camps and ethnic groups.

“In 2014 we found that the fight is increasingly taking place in communities, in public places near playgrounds and near the homes of ordinary Afghans,” Georgette Gagnon, the U.N. human rights director in Kabul, said in releasing the twice-annual report. “More efforts are needed to protect civilians from the conflict and to ensure accountability for those who are deliberately and indiscriminately killing them.”

It was the first time since the U.N. began closely tracking civilian casualties in 2009 that ground combat was the No. 1 killer, resulting in a greater number of casualties from mortar rounds, rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. As in the past, the lion’s share of the casualties — 74 percent — was attributed to anti-government forces.

As the U.S.-led military coalition has closed scores of bases or handed them over to Afghan forces, the dynamics of the conflict have changed, with the Afghan soldiers and police often unable to keep Taliban and allied insurgents from moving into territory vacated by the foreign forces, the report found. In the second half of 2013, the coalition closed or transferred at least 86 bases, which had a direct impact on civilian safety, with fighting in populated areas increasing when Afghan forces tried to protect territory seized by insurgents, the U.N. said.

“In some areas the perceived lack of control by Afghan security forces appeared to encourage anti-government elements to bring together larger attack groups which resulted in higher civilian casualties,” the report said.

In the past, most civilians have been killed or injured in bomb attacks, which so far this year were responsible for the second-most casualties — although those, too, were higher than in the same period last year. Improvised explosive devices killed 463 civilians and injured 1,000, a 7 percent jump from last year and the most since 2009.

The U.N. also found a worrying rise in deaths and injuries from pressure-plate bombs, a low-tech device designed to detonate when a vehicle drives over it, reversing a decline seen last year. The devices accounted for one in five casualties from bomb attacks, according to the report.

The U.S. Army via Flickr.com

Five U.S. Soldiers Killed In Apparent ‘Friendly-Fire’ Strike In Afghanistan

By Hashmat Baktash and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Five international soldiers died in a clash with Taliban forces in southern Afghanistan and officials were investigating whether the deaths were the result of friendly fire, the U.S.-led military coalition said Tuesday.

The coalition offered scant details of the incident, which occurred Monday night in remote Zabul province, but Afghan officials briefed on the matter said that a coalition airstrike mistakenly targeted international and Afghan forces who were battling Taliban insurgents in the Arghandab district.

A U.S. defense official said the five soldiers were Americans, the Associated Press reported. A senior police official in Zabul confirmed that at least four Americans were among the dead. One Afghan soldier also was reported killed. Coalition officials declined to identify the victims or their nationalities, pending notification of their families.

Some of the remaining 32,000 U.S. troops, mainly special operations forces, still conduct regular ground operations in the area of the attack.

If confirmed, it would represent one of the deadliest friendly-fire incidents in the nearly 13-year U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

A brief statement from the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, as the coalition is known, said the casualties took place when the unit came into contact with “enemy forces,” shorthand for Taliban insurgents, during a security operation.

“Tragically, there is the possibility that fratricide may have been involved. The incident is under investigation,” the statement said.

Ghulam Sakhi Rogh Lewanai, the police chief in Zabul, said Afghan and international forces had carried out a joint operation against Taliban fighters in Arghandab on Monday. At the end of the day, the forces returned to their base, where at about 9 p.m. they came under fire from Taliban rockets, Rogh Lewanai said.

Coalition forces on the ground called for airstrikes against the Taliban, which mistakenly hit the Afghan and international troops, he said.

In a separate incident, another ISAF service member died Monday in what officials described as a “non-battle injury” in eastern Afghanistan. With six fatalities in all, it marked the deadliest day for coalition forces in Afghanistan since December, when six Americans perished after their helicopter came under fire from Taliban militants and crashed in Zabul province.

Coalition deaths have declined dramatically in Afghanistan as countries withdraw their forces and Afghan soldiers take the lead in most security operations.

AFP Photo/Aref Karimi

Rare Suicide Bombing In Northern Afghanistan Kills Twelve Others

By Hashmat Baktash and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — A suicide car bomber set off his explosives at the entrance to the northern Afghanistan province of Panjshir on Thursday, killing at least 12 other people and injuring more than 20 others, officials said.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which occurred as Afghan officials finalize results from last month’s presidential election. Taliban insurgents have sought to derail the election, with little success so far.

Abdul Rahman Kabiri, governor of Panjshir, said a suicide bomber detonated a Toyota sedan laden with explosives about 5 p.m. in Dalan Sang, the entrance to the mountainous province. The blast killed six civilians, four police officers and two intelligence officers, Kabiri said.

Three cars that were waiting to pass through the checkpoint were damaged, and the civilians inside them were wounded, he said.

Violent incidents have been relatively rare in Panjshir, a stronghold of Taliban resistance dating to the 1990s and home of the iconic ethnic Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, the late commander of the forces known as the Northern Alliance. A former aide to Massoud, Abdullah Abdullah, is the front-runner in the presidential election, having won approximately 45 percent of the vote in preliminary results announced last week.

Abdullah is expected to face the second-place finisher, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, in a run-off contest after election officials adjudicate claims of voting fraud and announce the final vote tallies later this month.

AFP Photo/Noorullah Shirzada

Afghan Officer Kills Three U.S. Doctors

By Hashmat Baktash and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Three American doctors were killed Thursday when an Afghan police officer opened fire inside one of Kabul’s leading hospitals in the latest deadly attack aimed at foreigners in Afghanistan.

The shooting occurred at Cure International Hospital of Kabul, a 100-bed hospital that specializes in surgery and maternal and child health and treats 37,000 patients annually, the vast majority of them Afghans. The facility is run by Cure, a Christian medical charity that runs hospitals and health programs in 29 countries.

“With great sadness we confirm that three Americans were killed in the attack on Cure Hospital,” the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said in a Twitter statement. “No other information will be released at this time.”

Security officials said that a police officer working at the checkpoint closest to the hospital came into the facility through a visitor’s entrance at about 9:30 a.m. and fired on an American doctor who was welcoming three colleagues for a meeting.

The shooter was also wounded in the incident and he’s under treatment inside the hospital, said the Kabul police chief, Gen. Mohammad Zahir.

Dr. Yousof Khan, the hospital’s deputy director, said that one of the Americans was a pediatrician who had worked there for six years treating patients and training Afghan doctors, midwives and health workers.

A Taliban spokesman said he was aware of the shooting but did not know whether members of his organization were responsible.

The attack came three weeks after an Afghan police officer shot two foreign journalists from the Associated Press in eastern Khost province, killing photographer Anja Niedringhaus and wounding reporter Kathy Gannon. The Taliban did not claim responsibility for that attack, but the shooter, who was arrested, reportedly sought revenge on foreigners for a NATO airstrike near his home.

In January, Taliban insurgents in Kabul attacked a Lebanese restaurant popular with foreigners, killing 21 people. Last month insurgents killed nine people at Kabul’s luxury Serena hotel and later attempted to attack a Christian-run day-care center but ended up mistakenly attacking a heavily guarded compound next door.

AFP Photo/Shah Marai

Afghanistan Official Shot, Another Kidnapped In Kabul

By Hashmat Baktash and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Two security incidents within 24 hours involving Afghan government officials have taken some of the glimmer off of this month’s generally successful presidential election and renewed concerns about safety in Kabul.

Hours after unknown gunmen kidnapped a deputy minister in President Hamid Karzai’s government, a police officer engaged in an argument with a female member of parliament opened fire and wounded the lawmaker in the leg, officials said Wednesday.

The lawmaker, Maryam Koofi, was in stable condition at a local hospital, according to a statement from the Afghan Interior Ministry. The police officer was detained and is under investigation, officials said.

The shooting took place around 10 p.m. local time Tuesday near Koofi’s home in Arya City, a housing complex normally regarded as one of Kabul’s safest. Hashmat Stanikzai, a spokesman for the Kabul police, said the officer fired one or two bullets. The cause of the argument wasn’t immediately known.

Koofi is a lawmaker from Takhar province, in northern Afghanistan, and is the older sister of the prominent lawmaker and women’s rights activist Fawzia Koofi.

Earlier Tuesday, a group of gunmen abducted Ahmad Shah Wahid, the deputy minister of public works, as he was riding in his car on his way to work shortly after 7 a.m. The gunmen pulled his car off the road, pulled him into their vehicle and drove off, said Sohail Kakar, a spokesman for the Public Works Ministry.

Wahid’s driver was shot and injured when he tried to evade the kidnappers, Kakar said.

Officials said they did not know who was behind the kidnapping, and a spokesman for the Taliban said the group wasn’t responsible.

Although abductions of high-ranking officials in Kabul are rare, government figures are routinely targeted for attacks by Taliban insurgents. The capital has been under tight security for much of the last several weeks due to the April 5 presidential election, which saw high voter turnout and no major Taliban attacks.

Ballots are still being counted but a preliminary tally released by election officials over the weekend showed a close race between former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani.

AFP Photo/Aref Karimi

Runoff Looks Likely In Afghanistan Presidential Election

By Hashmat Baktash and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Early tallies released Sunday suggested that Afghanistan’s presidential election will be a two-man race, with neither former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah nor former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani close to the majority needed to avoid a runoff.

Abdullah held a slight edge, with 41.9 percent of the vote to Ghani’s 37.6 percent. The partial results represented barely 7 percent of the estimated 7 million ballots cast, however, and international observers urged patience during lengthy vote counting.

TThe initial results were the first official figures released from the April 5 election, which would lead to the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan’s history. President Hamid Karzai is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.

Full preliminary results are expected to be announced in two weeks. If no one wins a majority, a runoff election between the top two vote-getters would be held in late May or June.

Running a distant third was longtime Karzai adviser Zalmai Rassoul, whom many had viewed as the incumbent’s favored candidate. Rassoul had 9.8 percent of the vote. Though that trend, if it holds up, would put him out of the race, in a close second-round contest his endorsement could prove important.

So could that of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, an Islamist former warlord best known for once having ties to Osama bin Laden. Sayyaf had 5.1 percent of the vote, according to the figures released by Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission.

“Until the final results are announced by the IEC, stakeholders should be careful in drawing premature conclusions so as not to create inaccurate expectations,” said Jan Kubis, the top United Nations official in Kabul. “I urge presidential candidates and their supporters to display patience while vote tallying is completed.”

Because of a high turnout and the lack of a large-scale attack by Taliban insurgents that could have derailed balloting, the election was a milestone in Afghanistan. However, there were reports of scattered violence across the country on Election Day, as well as of many Afghans choosing not to vote because of Taliban threats.

Election officials said that 205 polling centers of the 6,423 nationwide did not open for security reasons, although they did not say where. In past Afghan elections, a prime source of fraud was stuffed ballot boxes from polling sites that were not open to voters.

“Now that they’re starting to release the results, I hope they’ll also soon post the list of closed polling stations, so that this can be compared to people’s observations,” said Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research organization in Kabul.

The early results showed that Abdullah, who has close ties to the anti-Soviet Northern Alliance factions that retain influence among Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities, performed well in northern Afghanistan, as expected.

Ghani, who, like Karzai, is a Pashtun, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, outpolled his rivals in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, which are dominated by Pashtuns.

The election commission did not release any results from eight of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, including some remote areas where transporting ballots was difficult. But officials said that 85 percent of tally sheets nationwide had arrived at the heavily fortified election headquarters in Kabul, where they were being processed, and the rest were expected to arrive within days.

AFP Photo/Massoud Hossaini

Taliban Threatens To Attack Presidential Election In Afghanistan

By Hashmat Baktash and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban threatened to attack next month’s presidential election in Afghanistan, calling on its followers “to use all force” in targeting poll workers and political activists and to disrupt balloting.

“We once again call on all of our countrymen to keep away from electoral offices, voting booths, rallies and campaigns so that, may God forbid, their lives are not put into danger,” read a statement released Monday by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the Taliban likes to be called. “If anyone still persists on participating, then they are solely responsible (for) any loss in the future.”

The rambling statement underscored the threat of unrest as Afghans prepare to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai, who is barred by law from seeking a third term. If successful, the April 5 election would mark the first peaceful, democratic transfer of political power in Afghanistan’s history.

Although the threat was not a surprise, it was the first time that the militant organization called directly for violence to upset the election. During the 2009 election, which was also marred by fraud and ballot-stuffing, militants attacked and killed poll workers and forcefully intimidated voters, sometimes slicing off their fingers.

This campaign has already seen attacks against partisans and election officials. In September, two Taliban gunmen killed the head of the Independent Election Commission in Kunduz province, in northern Afghanistan.

On Feb. 1, the day before campaigning officially began, two aides to presidential contender Abdullah Abdullah were shot and killed by unknown gunmen in the usually peaceful western city of Herat.

Abdullah, who finished second in the balloting to Karzai in 2009, is seen as one of the front-runners, along with former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani. Karzai has said he would not try to influence the outcome of the race, although he reportedly urged his brother, businessman Abdul Qayum Karzai, to end his long-shot presidential bid to avoid the appearance of nepotism.

Abdul Qayum Karzai dropped out of the race last week and threw his support to Zalmai Rassoul, a polished former foreign minister who is believed to be the current president’s favored candidate.

U.S. officials are trying to avoid any appearance of meddling in the campaign after the State Department was accused in 2009 of backing Karzai’s opponents. All the presidential contenders have said they would sign a security agreement allowing some U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, something Karzai has declined to do.

AFP Photo/Massoud Hossaini