Kabul, Afghanistan The Taliban and other militant groups are committing war crimes by targeting Afghan civilians, killing nearly 700 last year, according to a report issued Monday by Human Rights Watch that also pointed to dramatically escalating violence since 2005.
The death toll caused by the Islamic groups is more than three times the civilian deaths attributed to U.S. and NATO forces, which have been criticized for excessive use of force in civilian areas.
In the latest suicide attack against the Western-backed government, a bomber in the relatively stable north struck a crowd of police on Monday, killing 10 and wounding 32.
The New York-based rights group said the number of suicide attacks spiked to 136 last year from 21 the previous year as the Taliban turned to increasingly indiscriminate, Iraq-style tactics. The surge in violence made 2006 "the deadliest year for civilians in Afghanistan since 2001," the report said.
"The insurgents are increasingly committing war crimes, often by directly targeting civilians," said Joanne Mariner, the group's director on terrorism and counterterrorism.
Even when targeting government or Western security forces, "they generally kill many, many more civilians than they do military personnel," she said.
In all, more than 4,000 people died in the Afghan violence last year, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press from Afghan and Western officials. Most were militants killed by U.S.-led coalition and NATO forces.
The rise in violence has shaken the elected government of President Hamid Karzai. Five years after the hardline Taliban regime was ousted for hosting al-Qaida, fears are rising that Afghanistan is again sinking into an enduring conflict.
NATO and U.S. forces use of airstrikes and heavy weapons to fight the resurgent Islamic militia also exacted a heavy toll on civilians in 2006, killing at least 230 civilians, the report said.
But researchers discovered in their interviews with witnesses, victims and relatives that most anger over civilian deaths was focused on the militants rather than Western forces.
"I lost my son, brother and nephew because of the Taliban. They say that they are fighting for God and Islam, but they are not; they are killing good and innocent Muslims and Afghans who have done nothing wrong," a man identified by the pseudonym Abdullah was quoted as saying in the report. His shop was destroyed by a suicide car bomb last August in the south.
Human Rights Watch said it hoped the report could shame the increasingly radical Taliban into altering its tactics.
"We don't think that change is easy, but they're not entirely impervious to pressure," Mariner said.
Michael Shaikh, who conducted research for the report, said today's Taliban is increasingly brutal, even compared to the regime that hosted Osama bin Laden and was known for its strict Islamic law and punishments.
"The Taliban are starting to look like some of the insurgent groups in Iraq," Shaikh said. "It's a much more dangerous Taliban - a much more vicious Taliban."