Pakistani lawyer Mirza Shehzad Akbar (R) and Christopher Rogers (L), field fellow with the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) speak with media representatives during a protest against the US drone attacks in front of parliament in Islamabad on December 9, 2010. – AFP

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's government is overlooking the scale of civilian casualties in its war against militants and will lose credibility unless it acts to ease the suffering, a report by a US pressure group showed.

The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), due to release its study in Islamabad on Thursday, says there were likely more civilian casualties in Pakistan in 2009 than in neighbouring Afghanistan.

“Despite the severity of losses and consequences of ignoring them, civilian casualties receive too little attention from US, Pakistani and donor-nation policy-makers, military officials and international organisations alike,” said CIVIC.

“Overlooking the majority of civilians harmed or displaced by combat operations is undermining the Pakistani government's legitimacy.”

Pakistan's US-backed government faces al Qaeda-linked Taliban insurgents who are pressing on with a campaign of suicide bombings that have killed civilians, police and soldiers, despite a series of army offensives against them that started last year.

The study was based on interviews over the past year with policy-makers, NGO officials and over 160 Pakistani civilians who suffered direct losses from the conflict in the northwest.

“Headlines focus on the horrors of terrorism in Pakistan, but CIVIC's research shows that civilians suffer greatly from a much broader range of conflict-related violence,” it said.

“Pakistani military operations, particularly artillery shelling and airpower, cause significant civilian losses.”

The United Nations says more than 2,400 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2009. CIVIC said civilian casualties in Pakistan likely exceeded that number if losses from Pakistani military operations and U.S. drone strikes are counted.

“Civilians are caught between militants and Pakistani forces, while also suffering the consequences of extrajudicial killings, sectarian violence, explosive remnants of war and US drone strikes.” it said.

Missile strikes by CIA-operated pilotless drone aircraft have killed high-profile militants in northwest Pakistan.

Pakistan worries civilian casualties caused by the attacks inflame public anger and bolster support for the fighters, even though analysts say some operations require Pakistani intelligence.

While the report noted that the Pakistani government was the only party attempting to make amends directly to civilian war victims, it said more compensation was needed.

“Most victims interviewed were left without amends for their losses due to serious deficiencies in Pakistani compensation mechanisms and no US effort to help those harmed by its combat operations; this, despite US programmes for such victims in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said the report.

CIVIC called on the Pakistani government to take steps to ease civilian hardship, including halting all extrajudicial killings and the destruction of homes and other property as retribution or collective punishment.

CIVIC said its interviews with Pakistani civilians and evidence from human rights groups indicated both sides have carried out extrajudicial killings.

It urged militant groups to cease all attacks directly targeting civilians, to comply with applicable laws of war and not inhibit aid provided to civilian victims.

“Civilian victims expressed anger at warring parties for their losses. Despite some people's fear of retribution for speaking out, many placed the blame squarely on the Pakistani and US militaries,” said the study.

Some Pakistani civilians complain the army uses disproportionate force against its enemies.

“For two or three militants they crush the whole village, and so we are against the army,” the report quoted Tila Mohammed, who said he lost both arms to a tank shell, as saying. – Reuters

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