LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Fighting in Afghanistan this year could kill and injure a record number of civilians and force a growing number of people from their homes, aid agencies said on Thursday.
Taliban insurgents last week announced the start of their annual spring offensive, warning of increased attacks on foreign embassies and government officials, as well as military targets.
Last year was the worst for civilians since the United Nations began keeping records in 2009, with more than 10,000 killed or injured in the conflict in 2014.
"We predict an increase in civilian casualties this year," the U.N. deputy special representative for Afghanistan, Mark Bowden, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
"Hospitals have already noted twice the number of casualties coming in this year compared to the same period last year," he added.
The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government and its foreign backers since it was ousted from power by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was concerned by the increased number of attacks in recent weeks and the heavy toll this had taken on the Afghan population.
The indiscriminate nature of a suicide bomb attack in Jalalabad earlier this month, which killed 33 people and injured more than 100, including many civilians, represents an "alarming trend", said ICRC director of operations Dominik Stillhart.
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani blamed the attack on Islamic State militants.
"Humanitarian needs in Afghanistan are not diminishing. They are growing. We see the fighting is increasing in intensity," Stillhart said.
"It is vital, at this time, that donors maintain their commitment to the most vulnerable in Afghanistan," he said.
According to the U.N. Financial Tracking Service, nearly $130 million in humanitarian funding for Afghanistan has been received so far this year, worth 32 percent of the U.N.'s $405 appeal for 2015.
Conflict has already uprooted more than 800,000 people within the country and this figure is likely to rise as the fighting intensifies, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said.
The Taliban have launched an offensive in the northern province of Kunduz, where the Afghan army and police have less presence compared with the country's south and east which are home to Taliban strongholds.
"Heightened attacks have made it difficult to deliver aid in Kunduz ... we are seeing a steady deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan," NRC advocacy manager Danielle Moylan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
This is the first year Afghan forces are facing the Taliban with very limited international support on the ground, after NATO forces ended their 13-year combat mission in December.
International help with intelligence and special operations will continue through 2016.
Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Alex Whiting