KABUL, Afghanistan - The Taliban vowed Thursday to target government employees and other Afghan civilians they consider linked to the U.S.-led coalition despite a warning from the United Nations that such killings may violate international law.
Zabiullah Mujahid rejected an annual report issued by the U.N. Mission in Afghanistan that accused the Taliban of targeting civilians and blamed the insurgency for the overwhelming majority of deaths in its war against President Hamid Karzai's government and the foreign military coalition.
"Regretfully the report published by the head of the UNAMA in Kabul, about the civilian casualties in the country, does not bear impartiality," Mujahid said in the email, written in English.
The report, issued earlier in the week, found that 2,754 civilians were killed in 2012, a 12 percent decrease from 3,131 in the same period a year earlier. It was the first time in six years that the civilian death toll dropped.
It said the Taliban and other insurgents were responsible for 81 percent of the civilian casualties last year. It said so-called anti-government elements killed 2,179 civilians and wounded 3,952 - a 9 percent increase in such casualties from 2011.
Of those, 698 were killed in targeted attacks, often against government employees. That was up from 512 in 2011.
"Now within that proportion, the killing of civilian government employees went up by 700 percent," Georgette Gagnon, the head of human rights for UNAMA, said in presenting the report on Tuesday.
Chief U.N. envoy Jan Kubis welcomed the decline in casualties but warned militants who target civilians will face justice.
Mujahid retorted that the Taliban do not consider many of these people to be civilians.
"No Afghan can accept that the above mentioned people are civilian. We have pledged in the beginning of our yearly operations that these people are criminals. They are directly involved in the protraction of our country's invasion and legally we do not find any difficulty in their elimination, rather we consider it our obligation," Mujahid said.
He also denied that the Taliban were specifically targeting civilians with homemade bombs.
"The obvious thing is that our enemy is exhausted with our mine tactics and has suffered serious losses and you want to defame our effective resource," Mujahid said.
The U.N. said the number of civilian casualties from roadside bombs was growing even as fewer bystanders were hurt in ground engagements in the troubled south and east of the country.
Although casualties overall dropped, the number of Afghan civilians killed and wounded in the last half of 2012 rose sharply compared with the same period in 2011 as insurgents took advantage of warmer weather to carry out more attacks.
That increase suggests that the country is likely to face continued violence as the Taliban and other militants fight for control following the impending withdrawal of U.S. and coalition combat forces at the end of 2014.
In violence around Afghanistan, a German soldier was wounded and two Afghan policemen were killed in a pre-dawn operation against insurgents in the Khawaj Ghaltan neighborhood of the eastern city of Kunduz. Four insurgents were also killed, said Sarwar Husseini, the spokesman for the provincial police chief.
He said the firefight between Afghan police special forces and the insurgents lasted four hours. The German, who was mentoring the police was slightly wounded, Husseini said, adding that neither he nor any other foreign troops took part in the operation.
Also in the southern city of Kandahar a police officer was killed and two were wounded in a hand grenade attack, said Javeed Faisal, a spokesman for the provincial governor.
U.S. and coalition military forces have already taken a back seat in the conflict with Afghan security forces taking the lead for security in more than 90 percent of the country.
The Afghan lead in fighting has already become apparent in the casualty figures.
So far this year only eight members of the coalition have been killed, including three Americans.
U.S. troop deaths declined overall from 404 in 2011 to 295 in 2012. More than 2,000 U.S. troops and nearly 1,100 coalition troops have died here since the U.S. invasion in late 2001. Last year many of those deaths were at the hands of the Afghan forces they were partnered with or training. Deaths from so-called insider attacks - Afghan police and troops killing foreign allies - surged to 61 in 45 attacks last year compared with 2011, when 35 coalition troops were killed in 21 attacks
By comparison, more than 1,200 Afghan soldiers died in 2012 compared to more than 550 in 2011, according to data compiled by the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
Associated Press writer Amir Shah contributed from Kabul.