18 Afghan civilians die in Helmand blast
Kabul: Eighteen civilians died when a roadside bomb destroyed their minivan in southern Afghanistan`s Helmand province on Friday, a day after a Taliban attack in Uruzgan killed 21 people.
The latest bomb blast came as UN figures show civilian deaths are up 15 percent in the first half of this year, reaching record levels in the long war between insurgents and the Kabul government that is backed by NATO-led troops.
Afghan General Sayed Malook said the vehicle was in Nahri Sarraj district, travelling to the provincial capital Lashkar Gah 35 kilometres (20 miles) away, when it was hit.
"The reports that I`ve received from the scene indicate that all 18 people in the vehicle have been killed," said deputy police chief Kamaluddin Shirzai.
"We have been able to identify the bodies of one woman and three men so far," he said.
The Helmand governor`s office gave a lower toll of 16, but said the area was heavily mined, making it difficult to access the crash site and verify all casualties. Two women and two children were among the dead.
In a separate incident in Helmand on Friday, one person was killed and four others wounded when their tractor hit an improvised bomb in the Garmser district, officials said.
Cheap and easy to make, improvised explosive devices or IEDs are the Taliban`s favoured weapon, responsible for the majority of civilian and security forces` deaths in the nearly 10-year war.
A spokesman for the rebel group said they were unaware of Friday`s bombs.
The United Nations says civilian deaths from IEDs, the single largest killer of non-combatants, increased 17 percent in the first six months of this year compared to the same period in 2010.
More than 1,400 Afghan civilians have been killed in the conflict this year, according to a recently released UN report.
According to the UN, insurgents are responsible for 80 percent of civilian casualties, with 14 percent caused by NATO and Afghan forces and the rest unknown.
The UN said earlier this month that increased fighting in the south and southeast, and the spread of the insurgency to parts of the west and north, meant "civilians experienced a downward spiral in protection".
Shirzai said four policeman were also killed and another wounded in fighting with insurgents overnight near where Friday`s bomb went off, though it was not clear if the two incidents were connected.
"The gunfight erupted after a police patrol was ambushed by armed insurgents," he said. "The clash went on for over an hour."
The latest deaths came a day after coordinated bomb and suicide attacks in the neighbouring province of Uruzgan killed 21 people.
The Taliban targeted an official`s compound and a militia commander`s base, and set off a motorcycle bomb at a nearby police headquarters, triggering five hours of fighting with security forces.
Australia, which has 1,550 soldiers in Uruzgan, on Friday condemned the attacks.
"Hard-line elements of the insurgency continue to pursue their campaign through violence and attempted targeted killings," said Major General Angus Campbell, commander of Australian troops deployed to the region.
"Yesterday they paid a heavy price for their ambitions with all insurgents killed while failing to achieve their mission."
The latest violence comes at a critical juncture in the near decade-long conflict as thousands of US surge troops prepare to go home and other Western nations announce limited drawdowns.
All foreign combat forces are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and last week a first set of security handovers from NATO to Afghan forces took place in seven parts of the country.
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