By Jessica Donati
KABUL (Reuters) - Armed clashes were the leading cause of almost 5,000 civilian casualties recorded in Afghanistan in the first half of 2015, the United Nations said on Wednesday, as fighting intensified following the withdrawal of most foreign troops last year.
The number was one percent higher than the number reported in the first half of 2014.
In a worrying trend, more civilians were injured or killed by government forces than the Taliban during armed clashes, the U.N. said, although the insurgents remained responsible for the majority of casualties overall.
Explosive devices like mortars, rockets and grenades used during clashes caused most of the injuries and deaths during ground engagements, the U.N. said.
The total 1,577 casualties caused by ground combat made up around a third of the total recorded over the six months, following the end of the NATO combat mission in 2014 after more than a decade of war.
"This destruction and damage to Afghan lives must be met by a new commitment, by all parties to the conflict, to protect civilians from harm," said the director of the U.N. human rights unit in Afghanistan, Danielle Bell.
The Islamist militant Taliban were ousted from power by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001, but have been able to regroup and challenge Afghan forces with limited external support. Last year was the most violent since the U.N. began keeping records in 2009.
Around 12,000 NATO troops remain to train Afghan forces and only a small U.S. contingent is still engaged in combat, as part of a separate counter-terrorism mission.
The Taliban remained responsible for around 70 percent of civilian deaths and injuries in the first six months of 2015, the U.N. said, largely through their continued use of suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices.
The overall number of casualties caused by different types of bombs decreased for the first time since 2012.
However, explosive ordnance remained the second leading cause of casualties, the U.N. said, adding that the increase used of pressure-plate devices was of particular concern.
The growing ability of Afghan forces to detect and defuse bombs may also have helped limit the number of casualties, the U.N. said, with over 5,000 devices cleared over the period.
Targeted killings were the leading cause of civilian deaths, the U.N. said, as anti-government elements threatened members of the judiciary, religious leaders and others perceived to be supporting the government.
These included, for example, a mullah whose residence was bombed in retaliation for having performed a funeral ceremony for a policeman.
(Reporting by Jessica Donati; Editing by Nick Macfie)