NATO said Wednesday it was committed to keeping Afghan civilian casualties to a minimum and accused the Taliban insurgency of hiking their numbers by using them as human shields, dpa reported.
"Let no one doubt NATO's determination to reduce (civilian casualties) to a minimum," said James Appathurai, the alliance's spokesman.
"Let also no one doubt who is primarily responsible for civilian casualties," Appathurai said.
The spokesman said figures provided by NATO's own International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan estimated the number of Afghan civilian casualties caused by NATO forces in 2008 at 97. Between 130 and 150 bystanders were killed by US-led Enduring Freedom operations and a further 987 by the insurgents.
"In other words, the Taliban and their associates are responsible for 80 per cent of civilian casualties and are making absolutely no effort to reduce them," Appathurai said.
"They fight and retreat to civilian areas, they use human shields. So, even where NATO-ISAF does unintentionally cause these casualties, there is a reason. And the reason is very often that (the Taliban) are putting civilians into harm's way," the spokesman said.
Appathurai's comments came in the wake of a United Nations report out of Kabul saying the number of Afghan civilian deaths rose by 40 per cent last year, to 2,118 - the highest toll in the country since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001.
The UN annual report said Taliban insurgents were responsible for 55 per cent, or 1,160, of the overall death toll, while Afghan and international forces killed 828 civilians, or 39 per cent of the total.
ISAF did not provide separate estimates for the number of civilians killed by Afghan forces.
The rise in civilian casualties has become a highly delicate issue for the Afghan government and its president, Hamid Karzai, as well as for his relations with NATO.Appathurai said the issue was likely to come up at this week's informal meeting of NATO defence ministers in Krakow, Poland, which will also be attended by Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and UN special envoy to Afghanistan Kai Eide of Norway.