KABUL, Oct 19 (Agencies): Afghan civilians are paying the price for increased fighting in populated areas around the country, the United Nations reported on Wednesday, with government troops responsible for a growing share of civilian casualties.
At least 2,562 civilians died and another 5,835 were wounded in the conflict in Afghanistan in the first nine months of this year, UN officials said.
A similar number of civilian casualties occurred in the same period in 2015, indicating rates may be leveling off at near-record levels after steadily increasing since the UN began monitoring them in 2009.
Ground fighting between pro-government forces and Islamic militants caused nearly 40 per cent of all the casualties.
Children have been particularly hard hit by the fighting, with 639 young people killed and 1,822 wounded, for an increase of 15 per cent over last year.
The Taliban and a handful of smaller groups have been fighting to topple the Western-backed government, 15 years after the Taliban lost power in a US-led military operation.
"Increased fighting in densely populated areas makes it imperative for parties to take immediate steps to ensure all feasible precautions are being taken to spare civilians from harm," Tadamichi Yamamoto, the U.N.'s Special Representative for Afghanistan, said in a statement.
Casualties caused by pro-government forces rose 42 per cent compared to last year, with 623 deaths and 1,274 injured, UN investigators reported.
Meanwhile, More than 350,000 Afghan refugees have returned to their war-torn homeland from Pakistan this year, UN data show, with the torrent of people crossing the border expected to continue.
Earlier in October the UN's refugee agency UNHCR said the number of documented Afghan refugees returning from Pakistan had soared past 200,000.
But this week the body's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Afghanistan released updated figures that also include the number of undocumented refugees crossing the border.
"So far this year, 162,186 undocumented returnees and 207,236 registered returnees (369,422) have returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan," an OCHA statement said, noting that the majority, some 333,000 people, have returned since July.
"If that sounds like a lot, it is," the statement continued.
"Based on current trends, we expect a further 446,000 (both registered and undocumented) Afghans to arrive before year-end."
The influx of refugees threatens to overwhelm Afghanistan, with authorities there already warning of a humanitarian crisis as hundreds of thousands of people flee fighting within the country.