KABUL, Afghanistan — Insurgent suicide bombers and gunmen staged a deadly assault on government compounds Wednesday in southern Afghanistan, even as the U.N. warned that such fighting in populated areas was a major cause for a 17 percent uptick in the civilian death toll so far this year.
The worrying trend comes as the Taliban and other militants grow bolder with their attacks on Afghan security forces in the fight for control of key routes and other territory ahead of the withdrawal of U.S. and allied combat troops by the end of 2014.
Afghans have frequently been caught up in the violence, but the 85-page biannual U.N. report said that so far this year clashes, rockets and mortar strikes in populated areas killed more civilians than roadside bombs and suicide attacks.
"In 2014, we found that the fight is increasingly taking place in communities, in public places, near playgrounds, near the homes of ordinary Afghans, with death and injury particularly to women and children in a continued disturbing upward spiral," Georgette Gagnon, the human rights director for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, said at a news conference.
The findings were especially troubling because they threaten to undermine confidence in Afghan soldiers and police who are struggling to show they can protect the people as most foreign forces leave by the end of the year. Instead they are frequently forced to defend themselves as the Taliban and other militants strike closer to home.
The attack in the southern city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, began when a suicide car bomber detonated his explosives in front of the police headquarters while about a dozen gunmen stormed into the area and traded gunfire with security forces, according to provincial government spokesman Dawa Khan Menapal. An explosives-laden car then blew up near the gates of the nearby governor's compound.
In all, the fighting left 30 people dead, including the 22 attackers, four policemen and four civilians, Menapal said. At least 10 civilians, including a child, also were wounded.
Complex attacks like the one in Kandahar were the main reason for the uptick in the number of civilians killed and wounded, according to the U.N.
It said the shift was directly related to the closure and transfer to Afghan security forces of more than 86 bases belonging to the U.S.-led coalition as well as an increase in assaults against a growing number of Afghan checkpoints and patrols near markets and public roads.
President Barack Obama has said he wants to leave nearly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan to help train Afghan security forces and to stage counterterrorism operations. But outgoing President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign a bilateral security agreement that would allow the Americans to stay, saying he was leaving the decision to his successor.
The U.N. said 1,564 civilians were killed from January through June, compared with 1,342 in the first six months of 2013. That included a 21 percent jump in the death toll for children, with 295 killed so far this year compared with 243 in the same period the previous year. The overall casualty toll including the number of wounded rose 24 percent to 4,853.
Meanwhile, the number killed from ground engagements including mortar attacks and rocket-propelled grenades that hit homes, agricultural fields and playgrounds during the same period more than doubled, from 219 to 474. Roadside bombs killed 463 civilians and suicide bombings and other complex attacks killed 156, the report said.
Tensions surrounding the April 5 election and a June 14 runoff vote to replace Karzai, the only leader that the country has known since the U.S. invasion that ousted the Taliban in 2001, also took a toll on civilians, with 173 deaths from attacks targeting electoral officials in convoys, polling centers or candidates and their supporters.
Karzai was constitutionally barred from seeking a third term. The two candidates who faced off in the disputed second round, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, have both promised to sign the security pact with the U.S.
The U.N. also said the Taliban and other insurgents continued to be the main cause of civilian casualties, noting the number of civilians killed by militants doubled to 1,208 in the first half of this year, compared with 599 in the same period of 2009, when UNAMA first began keeping track of civilian casualties.
Insurgents were responsible for 74 percent of the casualties, the U.N. said, pro-government forces were responsible for 9 percent, government forces 8 percent and foreign troops just one percent. The rest could not be attributed to any group.
The Taliban issued a statement condemning the report.
"Once again Taliban are blamed for the majority of civilian causalities in this report, which is clearly propaganda of the enemy," it said. "We want to make it clear that the lives, dignity and property of all civilians is a major and important goal of our jihad."
In line with their diminishing presence in Afghanistan, the number of civilians killed by international airstrikes dropped to 25 compared with 49 in the first half of 2013, the report said.
It called on the Afghan government to try to mitigate the number of civilians killed and wounded by revising and strengthening tactical directives, rules of engagement and ensuring proper training on protection measures and accountability.
Khan reported from Kandahar. Associated Press writers Amir Shah in Kabul and Kim Gamel in Cairo contributed to this report.