KABUL, Afghanistan - The U.N. envoy to Afghanistan said civilian casualties rose nearly 30 percent in the first three months of the year, calling it a "troubling rise" in violence.
The U.S.-led NATO force said Wednesday that Afghan and coalition forces killed 13 insurgents in joint operations that began a day earlier in eastern Kapisa and Nangarhar provinces close to where the Taliban are thought to have kidnapped a group of foreign civilians.
The Afghan government said it was trying to win the release of eight Turks, an Afghan translator and two pilots - one from Russia and the other from Kyrgyzstan - who were kidnapped after their helicopter made an emergency landing in bad weather last Sunday in eastern Logar province - adjacent to Nangarhar.
"It's a very serious issue. We are following that issue very closely through our police organizations in Logar province, with the governor's office and with local elders in that particular area," Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi said Wednesday.
"That's the priority, not only for the Afghan police but for the Afghan security forces as a whole and for the governor of Logar province."
He added that the Afghan government was doing all it could to make sure the hostages were safe and that a proper way to seek their release is found. "If it is through local elders, if it's through any councils - whatever it takes," he said.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the captives were safe and in "good health," but denied reports that negotiations are underway for their release.
Afghanistan has seen heavy fighting in recent weeks as warmer, spring-time weather allows insurgents to move more freely. Following the winter, militants are able to infiltrate Afghanistan from mountain passes that connect to neighboring Pakistan where they have sanctuaries.
The Taliban have increasingly targeted Afghan government officials in recent attacks, including an April 3 assault on a courthouse and government offices in western Farah province. Forty-six people were killed, including two judges, six prosecutors, administration officers and cleaners working at the site.
The U.N. said violence increased by 30 percent in the first three months of the year and called on the Taliban to stop targeting civilians and using children in suicide attacks.
"Following a 12 percent decline in civilian casualties in 2012, the first three months of 2013 saw a troubling rise," Jan Kubis, the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, told a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels. "Compared to the same quarter in 2012, we assess that civilian casualties were up by almost 30 percent with 475 civilians killed and 872 injured."
He described the Farah attack as "nothing less than a war crime," and said a Taliban decision to target government officials and people working for the administration of President Hamid Karzai or the U.S.-led coalition "are of extreme concern."
One child was killed and another three were injured Wednesday morning when a grenade being used at an Afghan army training ground in the southern city of Kandahar exploded outside the military facility, said provincial spokesman Javeed Faisal. The night before, four children were killed while they were playing with a roadside bomb that exploded in Maruf district. The four were brothers, and a young girl also was wounded, he said.