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Afghanistan: Rights Groups Say Taliban Increasingly Target Civilians

Shopkeepers outside their businesses at the scene of a car bomb attack in Kandahar in August 2006 (epa) April 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Two international human rights groups have issued reports this week warning that Afghan civilians are increasingly bearing the brunt of conflict in their country.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International say Taliban militants are intentionally attacking civilians.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military is warning about a tactic increasingly used by Taliban to abduct and terrorize Afghan civilians -- impersonating Afghan police.

The U.S. military says it has received numerous reports in the past two weeks of Taliban fighters impersonating Afghan police. A U.S. military statement today says the Taliban use the tactic to set up illegal checkpoints and kidnap local Afghans.

HRW has called on the Taliban and associated groups to stop all intentional attacks on civilians and civilian targets. It also is calling on insurgents to refrain from using brutal attacks aimed at instilling terror among Afghan civilians.

The statement says three Taliban fighters in fake Afghan National Police uniforms opened fire on a coalition patrol on April 18.

The incident occurred near the strategic Shindand air field in the western province of Herat. All three militants were killed in the ensuing firefight.

Meanwhile, in the past two days, U.S.-led coalition forces in Herat Province have confiscated more than 100 fake Afghan police uniforms and recovered more than a dozen false personnel identification documents.

Broader Taliban Strategy

Amnesty International spokeswoman Saria Rees-Roberts told RFE/RL that the tactic is part of a wider strategy that her group reported about today -- the systematic targeting of Afghan civilians by the Taliban.

"These reports [of police impersonations] are very concerning, and they link up with what we have observed," Rees-Robers said. "The Taliban is using practices like abductions and killings in order to exert fear and exert control over the local population. It abducts people that it considers spies or collaborators. It tries them in a shadow court system and often carries out death sentences on them. And it carries out quite gruesome and brutal means of executions -- beheadings and slitting people's throats. This does seem to be designed in order to make other Afghan civilians in the locality fear for themselves and not want to go against the Taliban."

On April 16, HRW issued a report with findings similar to those of Amnesty International. The report says civilian deaths from insurgent attacks in Afghanistan have increased dramatically in the past 15 months, and it concludes that many of those civilian deaths are the result of the failure of militants to respect the internatioanl laws of war.

The 116-page HRW report documents how Taliban and Hizb-e Islami fighters have sharply escalated suicide bombings and other attacks against civilians since early 2006.

The Neglected South?

John Sifton, an HRW researcher on Afghanistan, told RFE/RL that there are several reasons for the escalation of civilian casualties by enemies of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his allies.

"The Karzai government has not made any real effort to establish security and good governance in the south," Sifton said. "And that, in turn, has left a kind of vacuum that the Taliban could exploit. The other reason is that [militants] are simply more active than they used to be. They are not only increasing their activities. They are increasingly using methods of warfare that violate the [international] laws of war. And that's why you are seeing so many civilians dead."

HRW has called on the Taliban and associated groups to stop all intentional attacks on civilians and civilian targets. It also is calling on insurgents to refrain from using brutal attacks aimed at instilling terror among Afghan civilians.

"We think that the Taliban and other insurgent groups are sensitive to these criticisms," Sifton said. "They are trying to gain legitimacy with local populations. Our arguments to them are that their actions are undermining whatever claims to legitimacy they might have."

Both reports criticize the U.S. military, NATO-led combat troops in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and Afghan government troops for conducting operations carelessly or too closely to heavily populated areas.

But both groups agree that those operations have not intentionally targeted civilians, as they claim the Taliban is now doing.

(RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Irina Lagunina contributed to this story.)

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