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UN: Afghan Insurgent Violence Soaring Over Last Year's Levels

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KABUL, Afghanistan — The United Nations reported Saturday that insurgent violence has risen sharply in Afghanistan over the last three months, with roadside bombings, complex suicide attacks and assassinations soaring over last year's levels.

The three-month report by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the U.N. Security Council appeared at odds with Pentagon assertions of slow but steady progress in Afghanistan – an assessment that was challenged by U.S. lawmakers during recent hearings on Capitol Hill.

In the report, Ban said the overall security situation in Afghanistan has not improved since his last report in March and instead the number of violent incidents had "increased significantly compared to previous years and contrary to seasonal trends."

The most "alarming trend" was a sharp rise in the number of roadside bombings, which soared 94 percent in the first four months of this year compared with the same period in 2009, Ban said.

Moreover, assassinations of Afghan government officials jumped 45 percent, mostly in the ethnic Pashtun south, he said. NATO has launched a major operation to secure the biggest southern city, Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual birthplace.

At the same time, suicide attacks are occurring at the rate of about three per week, Ban said, half of them in the south. Complex attacks employing suicide bombers, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire were running about two a month, double the number in 2009, he added.

During testimony Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, senior Pentagon official Michele Flournoy said the percentage of complex attacks had fallen steadily since a peak in February and were averaging below last year's levels. She gave no figures.

"The shift to more complex suicide attacks demonstrates a growing capability of the local terrorist networks linked to al-Qaida," Ban said.

He attributed the rise in violence to increased NATO and Afghan military activity in the south during the first quarter of the year, including the U.S.-led attack on the Taliban stronghold of Marjah. He also cited "significant anti-government element activities" in the east and southeast of the country.

"The majority of incidents continue to involve armed clashes and improvised explosive devices, each accounting for one third of the reported incidents," Ban said, referring to the military term for roadside bombs.

The U.N. report found some encouraging signs, including the government's plan to reach out to insurgents and offer economic incentives to leave the battlefield. It also said the U.N. was working with Afghan officials to prepare for parliamentary elections in September.

Polio vaccinations began in February to reach 7.7 million children this year, 200,000 more than last year, the report said.

Nevertheless, the overall U.N. assessment contrasted with the tone set last Wednesday by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who told a Senate panel that the U.S.-led force was making progress in Afghanistan. Gates complained about negative perceptions about the war taking root in Washington.

"I think that we are regaining the initiative," Gates told the panel. "I think that we are making headway."

Key congressional Democrats responded skeptically to Gates' remarks, raising questions about rising U.S. casualties and the slow pace of progress in an increasingly unpopular war.

At least 53 international troops, including 34 Americans, have died so far this month, a rate that could make June among the deadliest for U.S. and other international forces in the nearly 9-year war. The deadliest month for U.S. troops was October 2009, when 59 Americans died. The deadliest for the entire international force was July 2009 when 75 troops, including 44 Americans, were killed.

The U.N. also reported 395 war-related civilian casualties between April and June, a decrease of 1 percent from the same period last year. The report blamed "anti-government elements" for about 70 percent of the civilian casualties, up 3 percent from the last U.N. study in March.

Insurgent attacks on schools have increased steadily across the country, the report said, with militants using threats, intimidation and violence to frighten parents and staff. The report also said the U.N. was having trouble recruiting international staff because of threats of violence and a lack of secure living facilities.

Despite the negative assessment, NATO spokesman Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz told reporters Saturday that the international force was making steady strides, even though "tough fighting is expected to continue."

Insurgent commanders were being apprehended by coalition forces, which over time will disrupt the ability to organize suicide and roadside bomb attacks, he said.

"It has to be tougher perhaps before it goes easier," Blotz said.

Using figures different from the U.N., Blotz said the number of civilians killed or wounded in operations involving the international force dropped by 44.4 percent in the past 12 weeks compared with the same period in 2009.

"In the same period of time, the number of civilian casualties caused by the insurgency increased by 36 percent," Blotz said.

Afghan authorities reported civilian casualties in what NATO said was an attack late Friday against the Haqqani network, an al-Qaida-linked wing of the Taliban, along the border between Khost and Paktia provinces in southern Afghanistan. NATO said the attack included precision missile strikes against "a large number of armed insurgents" although the alliance was aware of reports of civilian deaths.

Shafiq Mujahid, head of the Khost provincial council, said at least six civilians, including five children and one woman, were killed in the airstrike and 13 other civilians were wounded.

NATO said it would accept full responsibility if civilians were "unintentionally harmed."

Also Saturday, police said gunmen assassinated a relative of a powerbroker in Kandahar the night before. The victim, Hamayun Khan, was a relative of Gul Alai, one of the Pashtun warlords who drove the Taliban from Kandahar in 2001, police said.

Two Afghan civilians were killed Friday when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb in the Marjah district of Helmand province, the Afghan Interior Ministry reported Saturday.

Three Afghan soldiers were killed and two others wounded by a roadside bomb Friday in Paktia province in southeastern Afghanistan, according to the deputy provincial police chief, Ghulam Dastagir.

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Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann and Rahim Faiez in Kabul and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.