By Dylan Welch
KABUL, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Afghan women and girls are increasingly victims of violence with a 20 percent increase last year in the number killed or injured even though the number of civilian casualties fell for the first time in years, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
Reinforcing fears about a rise in insecurity as foreign combat troops prepare to leave by next year, the United Nations said the country faced a growing threat from the return of armed groups.
The threat to Afghanistan's civilians in the 11-year war has become a significant source of stress in the relationship between President Hamid Karzai and his international backers, particularly when civilian deaths are caused by foreign forces.
An annual U.N. report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan showed a 12 percent drop in civilian deaths in 2012 to 2,754, from 3,131 in 2011.
It was the first fall in the number since the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) started measuring such casualties in 2007.
But despite the good news, the United Nations said there had been a 20 percent increase in the number of Afghan women and girls killed or injured in 2012, with more than 300 women and girls killed and more than 560 injured.
"The sad reality is that they were killed and injured while going about their daily work, their daily business," said U.N. human rights director in Afghanistan, Georgette Gagnon.
The return of armed groups opposing the Taliban insurgency but not directly linked to government forces was also documented, particularly in the country's north and northeast.
"In some areas, such groups had a presence and held power and control greater than local Afghan national security forces," the United Nations said.
"HIGH HUMAN COST"
Afghanistan was plagued by violence between rival factions for much of the 1990s. As a result, many people welcomed the Taliban when they spread out from the south of the country vowing to end the factional chaos.
There are fears that militia factions will again arise as Western forces wind down their operations and withdraw by the end of 2014, especially if government forces struggle against the Taliban insurgency.
The report's findings underscored "the continuing high human cost of armed conflict in Afghanistan", the U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan, Jan Kubis, said.
While NATO-led foreign forces had reduced the number of civilian casualties they caused by 46 per cent last year, from 1,088 to 587, deaths and injuries caused by insurgents increased by 9 percent, the United Nations said.
The drop in civilian casualties caused by NATO and government forces was attributed to fewer clashes and fewer air strikes in residential areas following a ban last year.
On Monday, President Karzai issued a similar ban for Afghan forces, forbidding them from calling in NATO air strikes in residential areas.
His decree came several days after Afghan forces called in a NATO air strike on a village in the eastern border province of Kunar, resulting in the deaths of 10 civilians, including five children and four women.
The Taliban and other insurgent groups were responsible for 81 per cent of all civilian casualties last year, with bombs, or improvised explosive devices as they are known, the single biggest killer of civilians, the United Nations said. (Additional Reporting By Miriam Arghandiwal, Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Robert Birsel)