KANDAHAR, 25 February 2009 (IRIN) – Last year was the worst for Afghan civilians since the end of major hostilities in 2001 as more than 2,100 non-combatants lost their lives in conflict, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

Civilian deaths increased by 40 percent in 2008 on the year before as warring parties, particularly insurgent groups, paid little heed to the safety of non-combatants, UNAMA said in a report.

Suicide attacks and the use of improvised explosive devices by insurgent groups inflicted heavy losses on civilians, as did aerial bombardments by international forces, UNAMA said.

‘In addition to fatalities as a direct result of armed hostilities, civilians have suffered from injury, loss of livelihood, displacement, destruction of property, as well as disruption of access to education, healthcare and other essential services,’ states UNAMA’s report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

UNAMA’s concerns were echoed by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), whose spokesman, Ahmad Zia Langary, said: ‘The impact of war on civilians cannot be limited to fatality figures, they are broad and numerous.’

Aid agencies have warned that conflict has spread lawlessness and insecurity across the country and humanitarian operations have been especially squeezed.

Thirty-eight aid workers were killed and 147 kidnapped, and 198 security incidents involving NGOs were recorded in 2008, the UN said.

‘Unseen victims’

In conflict-affected areas, mostly in the south and east, women and children are particularly harmed by conflict.

‘Women and children have, to a significant extent, been the unseen victims of the armed conflict in Afghanistan,’ said the UN report.

Financial burdens resulting from the loss of a breadwinner mostly deprive children and women of education, healthcare, food security and many other opportunities.

Dozens of schools and health centres were attacked and many school-children targeted by insurgent elements throughout 2008.

It is unclear how many of the reported 2,118 civilian deaths in 2008 were women and children but UNAMA said it would introduce a new electronic database to provide disaggregated information on the gender and age of civilian casualties of war.