More than 500 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in the first three months of the year as violence raged even after an agreement between the United States and the Taliban on withdrawing foreign forces, the United Nations said on Monday.
In all, fighting in the first three months caused 1,293 civilian casualties, of which 760 were injuries and the rest deaths, including 152 children and 60 women, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report.
The violence increased after a Feb. 29 U.S.-Taliban pact on the withdrawal of U.S.-led foreign forces in exchange for Taliban security guarantees. It includes a commitment by the Taliban and the Afghan government to work towards peace.
"The report tracks a disturbing increase in violence during March at a time when it was hoped that the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban would commence peace negotiations, as well as seek ways to defuse the conflict and prioritize efforts to protect all Afghans from the impact of COVID-19," UNAMA said.
Despite that, the number of casualties in the first three months of this year was the lowest since 2012. The period included a reduction in violence leading up to the signing of the pact.
Deborah Lyons, the UN secretary-general's Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of UNAMA, reiterated calls for a ceasefire, which the Taliban have rejected in recent days.
"To safeguard the lives of countless civilians in Afghanistan and to give the nation hope of a better future, it is imperative that violence is stopped,” she said.
Efforts towards formal peace talks have been fraying as the Taliban attack government forces, despite warnings from the United States that they need to reduce violence, as well as disagreements over the release of prisoners.
A political feud within the Afghan government, between the president and his main rival after a disputed election, has also distracted attention from the peace effort.
The number of civilian deaths caused by anti-government forces, especially the Taliban, increased by more than 20% compared with the first quarter of 2019, UNAMA said.
Targeted killings, summary executions and abductions of civilians were also on the rise, it said.
A Taliban spokesman rejected the figures and said they had a commission for preventing civilian casualties which had brought them down to "near zero".
Afghan government forces and other pro-government forces, including foreign troops, were responsible for almost a third of the deaths, UNAMA said.
Air strikes and clashes involving indirect fire by those forces were the reason for more child deaths, it said.