KABUL — Children are the biggest victims of the war in Afghanistan, with more than 1,050 people under 18 years old killed last year alone, according to an Afghan human rights watchdog.

Taliban-linked militants caused around 64 percent of all violent child deaths last year, the Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM) said in a report.

Children were also press-ganged, sexually exploited, deprived of health and education, and illegally detained by all sides in a war that is dragging into its ninth year since the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime.

"At least three children were killed in war-related incidents every day in 2009 and many others suffered in diverse but mostly unreported ways," ARM director Ajmal Samadi said.

Children died in suicide attacks and roadside bombings -- at the crux of the Taliban's arsenal against US, NATO and Afghan troops fighting the increasingly virulent insurgency as it spreads across the impoverished country.

The Taliban "reportedly caused more harm and intentionally abused more children for illegal purposes than pro-government Afghan and international forces," the report said.

"Through a horrible anti-education policy of heinous attacks, intimidation and terror the insurgents deprived hundreds of thousands of children, boys and girls, from education mostly in the insecure south and east of the country."

On the other hand, the Western-backed government has failed to introduce or implement laws to protect children against the abuses of war or "bring alleged criminals and abusers to justice," Samadi said.

ARM called on the Afghan authorities to set up an official child protection body and liaise with the warring parties on child rights.

The report by ARM, an independent rights monitoring group set up in Kabul in 2008, comes after the United Nations said civilian deaths in Afghanistan rose 10.8 percent in the first 10 months of 2009, most caused by the Taliban.

The United Nations put civilian deaths at 2,038 for that period, up from 1,838 for the same period of 2008, with the vast majority killed by insurgents.

It said 468 deaths were caused by pro-government forces, including NATO and US-led forces, and 166 by "other actors."

ARM released the report as a suspected roadside bomb attack killed four children and wounded more than a dozen in volatile eastern Nangahar province.

Reports that foreign forces killed eight students in Kunar province on December 26 caused widespread outrage, including US flag-burning demonstrations in two cities, though reports of what happened varied widely.

A government investigation found the teenagers were unarmed and killed in cold blood, while Western military sources said the group were armed, opened fire at foreign and Afghan forces, and were killed in self-defence.

Civilian deaths at the hands of foreign forces fuel distrust between the Afghan population, the government and US and NATO troops, even though most are caused by insurgent tactics such as homemade bombs.

The Taliban regularly exploit deaths caused by foreign and Afghan forces, and Western military intelligence officials say the militants have gained the upper hand in a sophisticated propaganda war.

Militant leaders, based largely in Pakistan, rarely claim responsibility for operations that kill large numbers of civilians but routinely exaggerate losses among foreign forces.

The United States and NATO are boosting their troop numbers in Afghanistan to 150,000 over the course of 2010, as part of a new strategy determined to clear and secure insurgent strongholds.

US General Stanley McChrystal, commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan, has ordered civilian casualties be kept to a minimum, yet as more troops pour in, a higher death rate is inevitable, experts say.