KABUL - After five years of rising deaths, civilian casualties in Afghanistan dropped 20 percent in the first four months of the year, the United Nations said, a rare piece of good news as foreign combat forces prepare to pull out by the end of 2014.

The killing of civilians has soured the feelings of many ordinary Afghans towards foreign forces and has been a constant strain on ties between the Afghan government and its Western backers in the increasingly unpopular war.

"There are several elements behind this ... there was perhaps less fighting in the first four months," Jan Kubis, the UN special envoy to Afghanistan, said late on Thursday.

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