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More protection for Afghans urged

Nato commanders in Afghanistan must do more to protect civilians by abandoning schemes to arm local militias and paying extra attention to abuses by Afghan forces, aid agencies have warned.

United Nations figures show that this year has been the deadliest for ordinary Afghans since the war began in 2001, with 1,271 civilian deaths recorded in the first six months, up 21% on 2009.

A coalition of 29 aid groups working in Afghanistan released a report calling on Nato to improve the training and monitoring of Afghan soldiers and police, who are being primed to take over responsibility for their country's security.

The agencies said there was a "grave risk" of abuses by the Afghan national security forces (ANSF), ranging from theft and extortion to torture and indiscriminate killing.

They added: "Afghan soldiers and police are poorly trained and command systems are weak. There is currently no effective mechanism for investigating alleged abuses caused by ANSF or registering community complaints, and civilian casualties caused exclusively by the ANSF are not even counted."

The report also highlighted the dangers of Nato programmes, known as "community defence initiatives", to provide weapons for local militia groups to fight the Taliban. It noted that recruits were barely vetted, often only accountable to local commanders and received little training.

The report added: "Given the high risk of infiltration, co-option or subversion by militants, warlords or criminal groups, such programmes could also lead to increased violence and crime. These programmes actually run counter to, rather than complement, efforts to build reliable and effective state security forces."

The aid agencies - including Oxfam, Christian Aid, ActionAid and Afghanaid - expressed particular concern about the effects of the conflict in Helmand province, where most of the UK's 10,000 troops in Afghanistan are based.

Maternal mortality rates in Helmand are triple the national average and about 3,700 families in the province have still not returned home since the end of a major Nato offensive known as Operation Moshtarak in February this year.

Ashley Jackson, Oxfam's head of policy in Afghanistan, said: "Transition of security responsibilities to Afghan forces faces enormous obstacles. There is a grave risk of widespread abuses by the national security forces, which can range from theft and extortion to torture and indiscriminate killing of civilians. Nato member states, who train, advise, fund and arm those forces, share responsibility for making sure this does not happen, but so far we have seen little action on the ground."

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