The United Nations says it is probing “disturbing reports of serious harm” to civilians during Monday’s Afghan military airstrikes on a Taliban-controlled district in northern Kunduz province.
Villagers in Dasth-i Archi told reporters Tuesday they attended mass funerals of dozens of victims, including children, insisting the Afghan Air Force bombed a packed madrassa, or religious seminary.
Local media reported the death of more than 50 people from the strikes, saying that about 150 also were wounded.
The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, or UNAMA, reminded all parties of their obligations to protect civilians from impact of the armed conflict.
“UNAMA [is] actively looking into disturbing reports of serious harm to civilians … Human Rights team on ground establishing facts,” the mission said in a tweet.
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammad Radmanish said Tuesday, more than 24 hours after the attack, that the air force targeted an “enemy stronghold” and killed 18 senior Taliban commanders among others, including foreigners.
He insisted combat helicopters undertook the counterinsurgency mission after spy drones had established the compound was a Taliban training facility.
Taliban leaders supervising insurgent operations in northeastern Afghanistan and commandos of the insurgent group’s so-called “Red Unit” were also among the slain men, the Defense Ministry spokesman asserted. Radmanish added insurgents had convened a meeting to prepare for a major offensive in Kunduz.
Radmanish claimed Taliban fighters fired back at army helicopters with anti-aircraft guns during the aerial operation and later they intentionally sprayed civilians in the area with bullets.
“People who have been brought to hospitals from the site have received bullet wounds and it shows they were shot at by gunmen on the ground during the airstrikes,” he asserted during a news conference. The spokesman, however, added that a high-level investigation was underway to determine more facts.
A Taliban spokesman swiftly rejected the ministry's claims, saying none of its members was present in the gathering and the strikes hit mostly children in the madrassa.
Critics say the deadly attack could lead to revenge insurgent attacks and undermine efforts to encourage the Taliban to come to the negotiating table.
Afghan Ambassador to neighboring Pakistan Omar Zakhilwal condemned the strike as an “irresponsible” action, cautioning such attacks are detrimental to efforts aimed at ending the ongoing "bloody and destructive war."
The "aerial strike on a madrassa in Dasth-i Archi, which killed many civilians, including children, is condemnable,” the Afghan diplomat tweeted Tuesday. "This will further prolong the conflict and bloodshed," he added.
The reported civilian casualties underscored the risk of increased reliance on air power under U.S. President Donald Trump's new strategy to try to force the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai also condemned Monday's attack in Kunduz, saying it killed and wounded civilians. “Such raids, carried out in the name of fighting terrorism, on our homes, hospitals and religious facilities are against all principles,” Karzai tweeted.
Kunduz briefly fell to the Taliban in 2015 and the insurgents overran it for a second time the following year before U.S. air support enabled Afghan forces to evict the rebels from the area.
A 2015 U.S. military airstrike, while the Taliban was still in control of Kunduz, mistakenly hit and destroyed a hospital, killing 42 people, mostly patients and medical staff. Residents say the Taliban maintain a strong presence in districts surrounding the provincial capital.
Civilians continue to bear the brunt of the prolonged Afghan hostilities. UNAMA documented more than 10,000 civilian casualties in 2017, including around 3,500 fatalities.