Four US troops, French soldier killed in Afghanistan

Four US troops and a French soldier were killed in separate incidents in Afghanistan on Wednesday as the UN reported the deadliest year yet for civilians in a spiralling Taliban-led insurgency.

Two US soldiers died in an IED (improvised explosive device) strike in the east of the country. Another died in fighting, also in the east, and a fourth died of wounds suffered in an IED explosion in the south.

The French defence ministry said a non-commissioned officer died on the road between Bagram and Nijrab in the east, the third French soldier to die in as many days.

Meanwhile, four Afghan military engineers and a civilian were killed when a bomb device they were trying to defuse went off in the eastern province of Khost, said Zahir Wardak, a senior military official.

The latest fatalities come a day after seven people died in violence at a protest against an alleged desecration of the Koran by foreign forces, officials said.

“Two ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) service members from the United States were killed today as a result of an IED (improvised explosive device) strike in eastern Afghanistan,” the force said in a statement.

A later ISAF statement said: “An ISAF service member from the United States was killed today during an engagement with insurgents in eastern Afghanistan. In a separate engagement another ISAF service member from the United States died of his wounds today as a result of an IED strike in southern Afghanistan.”

The deaths took to around 20 the number of foreign forces killed in Afghanistan since the start of the year, according to an AFP tally based on that kept by the independent website.

In southern Kandahar province, a hub of Taliban activity, a militant detonated a truck bomb near government installations in Daman district, injuring three police and as many civilians, the interior ministry said.

Civilians are increasingly being caught in the crossfire of the Afghan war, the United Nations said in a report on Wednesday, with 2,412 killed in 2009, the highest toll since the US-led invasion in late 2001.

This is up 14 percent from the 2,118 civilians who died in 2008, and the vast majority of the dead were killed in Taliban attacks, the UN’s Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in its report.

UNAMA’s head of human rights Norah Niland said 67 percent of last year’s civilian deaths, or 1,630, were in insurgent attacks, while pro-government forces including NATO and US troops were responsible for 25 percent, or 596 civilian deaths.

The deadliest months were August, with 333 deaths, and September, with 336, she told reporters.

“The good news is that, in part, the number of casualties is not keeping pace (with) warfare incidents,” Niland said, referring to an escalation in fighting as the insurgency has spread its shadow across the country.

NATO had “reduced the number of air strikes in residential areas and the figures of casualties as a result of air strikes has come down significantly,” she said.

But an influx of foreign troops over the course of 2010, as a new counter-insurgency strategy takes hold, meant “much more warfare and that’s bad news for Afghan civilians,” Niland said.

Civilian casualties are a source of tension between the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai and the international forces fighting the insurgency.

Karzai uses the issue to press home his authority, draw support for his unpopular government while criticising the tactics of the foreign forces.

The report’s release comes a day after seven people were killed during protests sparked by rumours foreign troops had desecrated the Koran. The toll was given by an official, blaming Taliban for inciting the unrest.

Investigators sent to the southern province of Helmand found that no desecration of the Muslim holy book had taken place in the military operation Monday, said Daud Ahmadi, spokesman for the provincial governor.

It followed earlier reports that nine people were killed during the demonstration in Gamsir district.

The United States and NATO have 113,000 troops leading the fight against the Taliban, with another 40,000 being deployed over the course of this year.