KABUL (AP) - The Afghan human rights commission reported Wednesday that 28 civilians have been killed so far in NATO's offensive on the Taliban stronghold of Marjah, and urged pro-government forces to take greater care in distinguishing between civilians and militants.
NATO and Afghan forces are in the 12th day of the offensive, the largest military operation in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001. Planners see it as key to taking on the insurgents in their southern heartland and turning around the war. NATO has stressed the importance of protecting civilians as part of their counterinsurgency campaign, boosted by extra U.S. forces sent by the Obama administration.
But military officials say that despite the care taken - which has slowed the assault on Marjah in volatile Helmand province - the offensive has still been marred by civilian deaths, including a rocket attack last week that hit a house and killed 12 people.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said in a statement Wednesday that it had confirmed 28 civilians deaths in the Marjah fighting, based on witness reports. Thirteen children were among the dead. About 70 civilians have been wounded, 30 of them children, the commission said.
NATO has confirmed at least 16 civilian deaths, while outside observers have reported 19.
The commission said witnesses had told them that most of the casualties came from coalition gunfire and rockets.
"Pro-government forces must exert greater care to distinguish between civilians and combatants in their offensive in Marjah," said the commission, whose head is appointed by the president but operates independently.
The report also comes after a NATO airstrike Sunday in central Uruzgan province Sunday killed at least 21 civilians, according to Afghan officials. NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal has apologized to the Afghan people on national television.
The military alliance reported Wednesday that fighting was tapering off in Marjah but bombs and gunmen continued to pose a threat. Marine spokesmen have said militants are still shooting out of fortified bunkers. Afghan military officials earlier reported that militants have been using civilians - even children - as human shields in the fighting with coalition forces.
Nevertheless, some residents have started to return, and NATO said a market in the north of Nad Ali district - of which Marjah is part - has opened for the first time in 18 months.
Military officials have said the assault in Marjah is just the first push in a campaign that will move east into Kandahar province - the Taliban's birthplace and where the hardline Islamist group still controls large swaths of territory.
The United Nations on Wednesday called on all sides to do their utmost to protect children from the conflict.
The U.N. says that while many more civilians are killed by militant bombs or attacks, new figures indicate that 131 children died in international airstrikes in 2009 - slightly more than the 128 killed by militants, including those used as suicide bombers.
Another 22 children were killed in night raids by coalition forces, while 38 children were killed by undetermined perpetrators, the U.N. said.
"If there is going to be war, then we would like the military on all sides to take measures to protect children," Radhika Coomaraswamy, the U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict, told reporters in Kabul.
She added, however, that she is encouraged by stricter rules of engagement adopted in recent months by NATO and hopes that will mean fewer children dying in 2010.
Underscoring the threat militants pose, two men on a motorbike gunned down a provincial official in neighboring Kandahar province as he walked to work Wednesday in the provincial capital, police said. Taliban insurgents claimed responsibility for the assassination.
Gunmen shot and killed Abdul Majid Babai, the head of Kandahar's information and culture department, then drove off, said Mohammad Shah Farooqi, the deputy provincial police chief. They have not been caught, he said.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi told The Associated Press that the insurgents were responsible for the killing.
Dozens of prominent politicians and religious leaders with ties to the Western-backed government have been killed in drive-by shootings or bombings in recent years, many in Kandahar city.
Babai had held his government post for about eight years and was not known to have stirred up controversy.