Reuters International

A member of Afghan security force takes his position during a battle with the Taliban on the outskirts of Kunduz province, Afghanistan, April 16, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

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KABUL (Reuters) - Urban warfare has caused a spike in deaths and injuries among women and children in Afghanistan this year as the Taliban intensifies their campaign against the Kabul government, the United Nations said on Sunday.

In all, 161 children were killed from January to March and 449 were injured, a 29 percent rise over the first three months of 2015, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said.

"If the fighting persists near schools, playgrounds, homes and clinics, and parties continue to use explosive weapons in those areas – particularly mortars and IED tactics, these appalling numbers of children killed and maimed will continue," UNAMA human rights director Danielle Bell said in a statement.

Overall civilian casualties in the period reached 1,943, including 600 deaths and 1,343 injuries. The number of deaths was down 13 percent from the first quarter of 2105 but the number of injuries was 11 percent higher.

Almost a third of casualties were children and there was a five percent rise in women being killed or injured, reflecting an increase in fighting in built-up areas as the Taliban has pressed its insurgency. Fifty two women were killed and 143 injured during the period.

Although the report said most casualties were caused by anti government forces, it noted a jump in those caused by security forces using explosive weapons like mortars and grenades and called on their use in civilian areas to be restricted.

The figures come days after the Taliban announced the start of its annual spring offensive and stepped up attacks on Kunduz, the northern city that fell briefly to the insurgents last year.

There has also been heavy fighting in the southern province of Helmand, where the Taliban have pushed government forces out of many areas into smaller defensive positions around the provincial capital Lashkar Gah and other district centres.

Last year, the first since NATO ended combat operations, civilian casualties hit a record 11,002, with 3,545 deaths and 7,457 injuries.

UNAMA estimated 60 percent of casualties were caused by anti-government forces including the Taliban and other groups such as Islamic State. Pro-government forces caused 19 percent of the total, but that was 70 percent higher than a year earlier. The rest could not be attributed directly.

Airstrikes by Afghan or U.S. aircraft caused six deaths and 21 injuries, up from 16 in the same period of 2015.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Stephen Coates)

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