Civilian casualties increase as Afghanistan troops battle Taliban

Broken glass and debris are seen inside a resturant a day after a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan

By Josh Smith

KABUL (Reuters) – Civilians are being killed and wounded in record numbers in Afghanistan, the United Nations reported on Monday, just days after one of the deadliest attacks ever in Kabul.

Overall at least 1,601 civilians were killed and 3,565 wounded in the war in the first six months of 2016, the United Nations reported, as insurgent groups like the Taliban try to topple the government installed in Kabul after the 2001 U.S.-led military intervention.

Anti-government groups, the largest of which is the Taliban, accounted for at least 60 percent of non-combatants killed and wounded.

Twin blasts on Saturday were claimed by Islamic State militants and killed at least 80 people and injured more than 230, most of them civilians.

Those numbers are not included in the U.N. report, but the attack highlighted its finding that suicide bombings and complex attacks are now harming more civilians than are roadside bombs.

Casualties caused by pro-government forces increased 47 percent over the same period last year, the United Nations said.

Afghan forces were responsible for 22 percent of casualties overall, and the international troops remaining in the country caused 2 percent, while 17 percent could not be attributed to one side or the other.

For the first time, the Afghan air force killed or wounded more civilians in its operations than did air strikes carried out by international forces, the United Nations reported.

U.N. officials said they had heard more commitments by both sides, but few effective actions to improve protection of civilians.

“Every civilian casualty represents a failure of commitment and should be a call to action for parties to the conflict to take meaningful, concrete steps to reduce civilians’ suffering and increase protection,” Tadamichi Yamamoto, the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, said in the report.

“Platitudes not backed by meaningful action ring hollow over time. History and the collective memory of the Afghan people will judge leaders of all parties to this conflict by their actual conduct.”


More than 1,500 children were killed and wounded by the war, in the highest toll ever recorded in a six-month period by the United Nations.

Most civilians were caught up in ground clashes between the two sides as the Taliban increasingly threatened population centers and government troops went on the offensive following the withdrawal of most international combat troops in 2014.

Ground engagements accounted for 38 percent of casualties, followed by complex and suicide attacks at 20 percent, U.N. investigators found.

Casualties caused by roadside bombs decreased dramatically, by 21 percent, a drop the United Nations attributed to changes in the nature of the conflict, as well as better bomb-detection by the government.

The report was sharply critical of the Taliban, who “continued using indiscriminate tactics, including carrying out devastating complex and suicide attacks in civilian areas”.

Islamic State, a group that has made some limited inroads in Afghanistan, accounted for 122 casualties in the first six months of 2016 compared with 13 casualties attributed to it in the same period last year.

The increasing number of casualties caused by the government, meanwhile, was largely due to wide use of heavy explosives during ground battles, investigators reported.

Aerial operations by the Afghan air force in 2016 caused more than triple the number of civilian casualties during the same period in 2015, according to the report, as new aircraft and weapons were deployed.

At least 111 civilians, 85 of them women or children, were killed or wounded by Afghan helicopters and warplanes.

On June 13, for example, Afghan helicopters fired rockets and machine guns at a funeral ceremony for a Taliban member, killing or wounding at least 15 women and children, alongside insurgents, investigators found.

U.N. officials called for an immediate halt to the use of air strikes in populated areas and urged Afghan air crews to use “greater restraint”.

While international forces declared their combat mission over at the end of 2014, they continue to conduct air strikes and special operations missions.

Air strikes by international forces, comprised mostly of American warplanes, caused 38 deaths and 12 injuries among civilians, the U.N. reported.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Germany girds for potential spike in Islamic State attacks

Police barrier is pictured at the train station in Grafing

BERLIN (Reuters) – The German government voiced concern on Tuesday that Islamic State could step up attacks in Europe as it loses territory in Iraq and Syria, and said its domestic intelligence agency is training to respond to a large-scale assault.

Interior Minister Thomas De Maiziere welcomed gains made by a U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, but said they were not diminishing the risk of attacks in Europe.

“On the contrary, we fear that Islamic State will externalize, transfer its activities to Europe, especially because of military losses in the region,” the minister, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic party, told reporters.

Germany has been on high alert for possible large-scale militant incidents – potentially including military-style weapons – since the IS attacks in Paris last November and Brussels in March, Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of the BfV domestic intelligence agency, told the same news conference.

He said the agency had carried out several exercises to prepare for such events, and several attacks had already been thwarted. Three Syrian men were earlier this month suspected of planning large-scale attacks in Duesseldorf.

Maassen said the agency was also vigilant for potential lone-wolf attacks, self-radicalized individuals, and possible militants smuggled in under the cover of over one million mostly Muslim refugees that have entered Germany over the past year.

He said authorities had identified clear evidence against 17 individuals who had entered Germany disguised as refugees, and most were either dead or had been arrested. “We must keep a particularly close eye on this group of people,” he said.

Authorities were checking tips about a total of 400 potential Islamists among the refugees, but most of those had turned out to be false claims made by other refugees, he said.

De Maiziere said the rate of Islamists leaving Germany to join Islamic State in Iraq and Syria had slowed, but remained troubling. A total of 820 such people were now believed to have departed Germany for the region, up from 780 at the end of December, with about one-third estimated to have returned.

About 60 of those who had tried to reach the region were under the age of 18, and 20 of those that actually succeeded were girls, Maasen said.

At the same time, Germany has seen sharp increases in the number of ultra-conservative Islamists known as Salafists in recent years, with the total number of sympathizers now seen at 8,900, up from 7,000 at the end of 2014, German officials said.

De Maiziere said it was important to reintegrate the so-called “foreign fighters” who returned to Germany, some of whom were highly radicalized, while others were disillusioned.

(This version of the story corrects the spelling of the name in paras 4 and 10)

(Reporting by Thorsten Severin and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Iraqi army closes in on IS militants holed up west of Falluja

By Thaier al-Sudani and Ahmed Rasheed

FALLUJA, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraq’s army sought on Monday to eliminate Islamic State militants holed up in farmland west of Falluja to keep them from launching a counterattack on the city a day after Baghdad declared victory over IS there.

Backed by air strikes from a U.S.-led coalition, Iraqi artillery bombarded targets as troops closed in on up to 150 insurgents in areas along the southern bank of the Euphrates river, an army officer participating in the operation said.

The government’s recapture of Falluja, an hour’s drive west of the capital, was part of a broader offensive against IS, which seized large swathes of Iraq’s north and west in 2014 but is now being driven back by an array of forces.

Falluja’s recovery lent fresh momentum to the campaign to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and the biggest anywhere in the jihadists’ self-proclaimed caliphate and which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has pledged to retake this year.

Colonel Ahmed al-Saidi, who participated in Monday’s advance, said ground forces were moving cautiously to avoid triggering roadside bombs planted by Islamic State.

“They (holed-up militants) have two options: either they surrender or they get killed. We want to prevent them catching their breath and attacking our forces with car bombs.”

Saidi said radio intercepts suggested the militants were running out of ammunition and he expected them to fold shortly.

The insurgents mounted limited resistance to Iraqi forces earlier this month inside Falluja before scattering after some commanders abandoned the fight, according to Iraqi officials.

The military’s swift advance surprised many who anticipated a protracted battle for Falluja, a bastion of Sunni Muslim insurgency where some of the fiercest fighting of the U.S. occupation of Iraq took place in 2004 against Islamic State’s forerunner, al Qaeda.


Control of Falluja is now shared between the army, elite counter-terrorism forces and federal police. Some fighters from Shi’ite Muslim militias, which have held several outlying areas for months, are also present inside Falluja proper.

The army along with local police are expected to take full control in the coming days, a military source said.

Central districts of Falluja, which in January 2014 became the first Iraqi city to fall to Islamic State, were mostly quiet on Monday as bomb-removal operations along roadways and in buildings began in earnest.

Military sources said the city had been heavily mined by IS but the extent of damage to infrastructure and property could not be assessed easily.

Dozens of buildings across the city have been torched, something blamed by government forces on fleeing militants, though Reuters could not verify their accounts.

Some officials estimate that as little as 10 percent of Falluja had been destroyed, comparing that favorably with Ramadi and Sinjar, cities recaptured from Islamic State last year but widely devastated in the process.

A spokesman for the governor of Anbar province, where Falluja is located, said the worst damage had occurred in the southern industrial district where Islamic State had assembled car bombs used in attacks in Baghdad.

More than 85,000 civilians displaced by the fighting in the past month are waiting in government-run camps to return home; at least twice as many people fled Falluja during IS rule.

(Additional reporting and writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Belgian police alerted to IS Fighters en route to Europe

A Belgian police officer patrols near an apartment building during the reconstruction of the recent attacks, in the Brussels

By Philip Blenkinsop

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Belgian police have received an anti-terror alert warning that a group of Islamic State fighters recently left Syria en route for Europe planning attacks in Belgium and France, a Belgian security source said on Wednesday.

The Belgian crisis center in charge of coordinating security responses said an alert had been circulated to all police forces in the country but there were no immediate plans to raise the security level to the maximum that would indicate an imminent threat of an attack.

A source at France’s Interior Ministry said Belgian authorities had transmitted a note to their French counterparts, who were currently reviewing the information in the alert. “We know the threat is very high,” the source said. “We’re reviewing all the elements (in the alert).”

Newspaper DH quoted the alert from Belgium’s anti-terror cell as saying the group “left Syria about a week and a half ago aiming to reach Europe via Turkey and Greece by boat without passports”, without giving an exact departure date.

The Belgian security source confirmed the contents of the alert. The Belgian federal police declined to comment and the French source could not confirm the content.

DH said the fighters were armed and aimed to split into two units, one aiming to carry out attacks in Belgium, the other in France. Potential targets in Belgium included a shopping center, a fast-food restaurant and a police station.

It mentioned no specific targets in France, which is hosting the Euro 2016 soccer championships in 10 stadiums across the country until July 10. Some 2.5 million spectators are expected to watch the 51 matches.

“We know there are fighters who are coming back (to Europe),” French government spokesman Stephane Le Foll told a news conference on Wednesday, adding he could not confirm the specific alert from Belgium.

The alert came two days after an attacker who pledged allegiance to Islamic State killed a French police commander and his partner at their home outside Paris, and four days after a gunman declaring loyalty to the Islamist militant group massacred 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.


Belgian authorities raised the threat level for the capital Brussels to the maximum of four shortly after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks that killed 130 people and after suicide bombers killed 32 people at Brussels airport and on the city’s metro on March 22. The status was lowered on each occasion after a few days.

Belgian police have arrested a number of men of Moroccan origin suspected of direct or indirect involvement in the Paris and Brussels attacks.

A spokesman for the Belgian crisis center said that despite the latest alert, the body that sets the security level did not have any indication of an imminent threat.

“We are still at level three, which refers to a threat that is serious, and we have been at this level since November,” he said. “It is true that you should be careful in areas with large concentrations of people… Security has already been reinforced at all these targets. For now, there has not been a change.”

(Additional reporting by Chine Labbe, Elizabeth Pineau and Jean-Baptiste Vey in Paris,; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Gareth Jones)

Flow of civilians from Falluja slows as IS tightens grip

Iraqi soldiers prepare to go to battle against Islamic State militants at the frontline in Falluja, Iraq, June 14, 2016. R

By Stephen Kalin and Isabel Coles

BAGHDAD/ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – About 40,000 residents of Falluja, Islamic State’s besieged stronghold near Baghdad, have fled in the last three weeks, but a similar number are trapped despite the Iraqi army’s attempts to secure escape routes for them, officials said on Tuesday.

Officials in Anbar province, where Falluja is located, said Islamic State was tightening control over civilian movement in the center where the United Nations and a provincial official estimate around 40,000 civilians are stuck with little food or water.

The group has used residents as human shields to slow the troops’ advance and thwart the air campaign backing them.

By midday on Tuesday fewer than 1,000 people had fled Falluja through a southwestern route secured by the military on Sunday at al-Salam Junction, a Norwegian aid group said, down from 4,000 and 3,300 on each of the previous two days.

The United Nations recently put the total population at 90,000 people, a fraction of its size before IS took over.

The army, counter-terrorism forces and Shi’ite Muslim paramilitary fighters backed by air strikes from a U.S.-led coalition launched a major operation last month to retake the mainly Sunni city, an hour’s drive from Baghdad.

But Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi slowed the advance to protect civilians amid fears of sectarian violence, and Iraqi forces have made only piecemeal gains in recent days as they try to reach the city center.

Most of those displaced on Tuesday came from the outskirts, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which is providing aid to escapees at nearby camps who join around four million others displaced across the country.

Islamic State has alternately attacked civilians trying to leave and forced them to pay an exit tax of more than $100 per person, said Karl Schembri, an NRC spokesman.

“The journey is still full of risks and extremely unsafe,” he said in an email.


Falih al-Essawi, deputy head of the Anbar provincial council, said the militants had threatened to shoot fleeing families.

Aid groups providing food, water and other supplies to escapees do not have access to the city itself, which was besieged by government forces for around six months before the current advance began, prompting the United Nations and rights groups to warn about an imminent humanitarian crisis.

“The fighting has now gone on for nearly three weeks. Those people were in trouble before the operation began and we have to now assume that they are in terrible trouble,” Lise Grande, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said in a telephone interview.

Iraq said on Monday it had made arrests as it investigates allegations that Shi’ite militiamen helping the army retake Falluja had executed dozens of Sunni Muslim men fleeing the city held by Islamic State.

The participation of militias in the battle of Falluja, just west of Baghdad, alongside the Iraqi army had already raised fears of sectarian killings.

Falluja is a historic bastion of the Sunni insurgency against U.S. forces that toppled Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, in 2003, and the Shi’ite-led governments that followed.

The push on Falluja comes at the same time as other enemies of Islamic State launched major offensives on other fronts, including a push by U.S.-backed forces against the city of Manbij in northern Syria.

They amount to the most sustained pressure on the militants since they proclaimed their caliphate in 2014.


While it kept focus on Falluja, the Iraqi army also pressed on with an advance south of Mosul, Islamic State’s de facto capital seized in 2014 along with a third of Iraq’s territory.

Backed by coalition airstrikes and artillery, Iraqi forces retook the hilltop village of Nasr on the eastern bank of the river Tigris, about 275 kilometers (170 miles) north of Baghdad, a military statement said. The army had recaptured Nasr two months ago but retreated a day later, drawing criticisms that it was unprepared.

The army was still pushing to retake another village in the Haj Ali area, which it pushed into at the weekend.

Across the river is the Islamic State hub of Qayara, where there is an airfield that could serve as a staging ground for the future offensive on Mosul, about 60 kilometers further north.

“The bridges are ready,” said an Iraqi officer involved in the operation. “When we occupy the Qayara base, Mosul will be within reach”.

The officer said Islamic State had not mounted a strong defense of Haj Ali, and that more than 20 fighters had been killed, while others fled across the river. “Our intelligence says that they are collapsing,” he said.

Elite Iraqi forces are also preparing to advance up the Tigris river valley towards Qayara from the south, military officials said on Tuesday.

If successful, the move would isolate the militant-held districts of Hawija and Shirqat from the rest of the territory Islamic State controls to the west.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Saif Hameed, editing by Peter Millership)