KABUL (AFP) — Civilian deaths from international air strikes in Afghanistan nearly tripled between 2006 and 2007 with new deadly strikes fuelling a public backlash, Human Rights Watch said Monday. Insurgents were also guilty of causing civilian deaths by using ordinary people as “human shields” against troops, including by deploying into villages, the New York-based rights group said in a report.

But the international forces, and the US military in particular, needed to “end the mistakes that are killing so many civilians,” Asia director Brad Adams warned in a statement accompanying the report. “Mistakes by the US and NATO have dramatically decreased public support for the Afghan government and the presence of international forces providing security to Afghans,” he said. “Civilian deaths from air strikes act as a recruiting tool for the Taliban and risk fatally undermining the international effort to provide basic security to the people of Afghanistan.”

The report comes less than a fortnight after Afghan government and UN investigation teams said US-led coalition air strikes killed more than 90 villagers, most of them children, on August 22 in the western village of Azizabad.

The coalition rejects the figure saying only five to seven died along with 30-35 Taliban.

If the toll of 90 is confirmed, it would be one of the deadliest such incidents since the United States led troops into Afghanistan seven years ago to remove the Taliban from government and round up extremist militants.

Human Rights Watch said that in 2006 at least 699 Afghan civilians were killed in militant attacks, including suicide bombings, and at least 230 in international military action, around half in air strikes.

In 2007, at least 950 died in attacks by insurgent forces, including the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and at least 321 in air strikes.

“Thus, civilian deaths from US and NATO air strikes nearly tripled from 2006 to 2007,” it said.

In the first seven months of this year 2008, at least 367 civilians had been killed in insurgent attacks and at least 119 in air strikes, it said, adding its data was based on conservative estimates.

The air strikes that accounted for almost all the civilian dead were unplanned and called in to help troops under attack, Human Rights Watch said.

“Rapid response air strikes have meant higher civilian casualties, while every bomb dropped in populated areas amplifies the chance of a mistake,” Adams said.

Besides civilian casualties, strikes also caused people to flee their homes and villages in fear of future bombardments, resulting in another problem of displacement, Human Rights Watch said.

The watchdog accused US officials in particular of a “poor response” when civilian deaths did occur, saying the US military often immediately denied responsibility or placed all blame on the Taliban.

Its investigations had been “unilateral, ponderous, and lacking in transparency” and undercut relations with local populations and the Afghan government, the group said.

Compensation payouts to survivors or relatives of victims had not been timely or adequate, it said, calling for the international forces to improve their method of assessing damages.

“While Taliban shielding is a factor in some civilian deaths, the US shouldn’t use this as an excuse when it could have taken better precautions. It is, after all, its bombs that are doing the killing,” Adams said.