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UNITED NATIONS, Feb 23 (APP):Despite a drop in civilians killed and injured overall in 2020, there was a rise in civilian casualties following the start of peace negotiations in September, according to a UN human rights report released Tuesday.

In their annual Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Annual Report, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UN Assistance Mission in the country (UNAMA) documented some 8,820 civilian casualties (3,035 deaths and 5,785 injuries) in 2020, about 15 per cent less than in 2019.

It was also the first time the figure fell below 10,000 since 2013.

However, Afghanistan remains amongst the “deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” according to Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“I am particularly appalled by the high numbers of human rights defenders, journalists, and media workers killed since peace negotiations began in September,” she said.

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At least 11 rights defenders, journalists and media workers lost their lives since September, resulting in many professionals exercising self-censorship in their work, quitting their jobs, and even leaving their homes.

According to the report, the overall drop in civilian casualties in 2020 was due to fewer casualties from suicide attacks by anti-government elements in populated areas, as well as drop in casualties attributed to international military forces.

There was, however, a “worrying rise” in targeted killings by such elements – up about 45 per cent over 2019. The use of pressure-plate improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by the Taliban, air strikes by the Afghan Air Force, and ground engagements also resulted in increased casualties, the report said.

According to the report, anti-government elements bore responsibility for about 62 per cent civilian casualties, while pro-government forces were responsible for about 25 per cent casualties. About 13 per cent of casualties were attributed to crossfire and other incidents.

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Deborah Lyons, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Afghanistan and head of UNAMA, called on all parties to take immediate and concrete action to protect civilians, urging them “not to squander a single day in taking the urgent steps to avoid more suffering”.

“2020 could have been the year of peace in Afghanistan. Instead, thousands of Afghan civilians perished due to the conflict,” Ms Lyons said.

The “overriding objective” of the report was to provide the parties responsible with the facts, and recommendations, so they take immediate and concrete steps to protect civilians, she added.

Ms Lyons highlighted that “ultimately, the best way to protect civilians is to establish a humanitarian ceasefire” – a call consistently made by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the Security Council.

“Parties refusing to consider a ceasefire must recognize the devastating consequences of such a posture on the lives of Afghan civilians,” she said.