Anti-Taliban U.S. airstrikes in northern Afghanistan have killed dozens of insurgents and also caused civilian casualties, said residents and local media Saturday.
Afghan special forces, backed by foreign airpower, have engaged in a major counter-insurgency offensive in the volatile Chardara district in Kunduz province.
The Taliban sent reinforcements from neighboring Baghlan province, prompting Afghan forces to request NATO airstrikes late Friday, in support of local forces, said commando forces spokesman Ahmad Salem.
He denied claims of civilian casualties, saying villagers had vacated the area before the anti-Taliban operation began and the airstrikes killed more than 30 anti-government fighters.
Residents and local politicians said a group of civilians was forced by the Taliban to go to the bombing site early on Saturday to collect bodies and injured people when missiles fired by unmanned U.S. drones struck and killed them.
A Taliban spokesman said its fighters repulsed the Afghan offensive and intense fighting was raging in the area. He claimed the overnight bombing was carried out by American planes and killed "tens of civilians."
It was not possible to verify from independent sources battlefield claims made by either side. The U.S. military has also not yet commented on the allegations of civilian casualties.
The Taliban controls or influences areas around the provincial capital of Kunduz and attempts by U.S.-backed Afghan forces to evict insurgents have reportedly not produced results.
The insurgents briefly seized Kunduz two years ago. During the U.S.-backed counteroffensive, which enabled Afghan forces to retake the provincial capital, an American air raid mistakenly hit and damaged the only hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in the area.
Afghan civilians continue to fall victim to the intensified war in Afghanistan. The United Nations has warned civilian casualties have spiked to record levels this year and documented a 52 percent increase in civilian casualties by airpower in the first nine months of 2017.
Reports of the latest civilian casualties came a day after the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced she planned to pursue a formal investigation into war crimes committed in Afghanistan since May 2003 when the war-torn country became a member of the court.
In a statement issued Friday, Fatou Bensouda explained that "there is a reasonable basis to believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed in connection with the armed conflict in Afghanistan.” She also raised the possibility of probing abuses committed by U.S. forces and Central Intelligence Agency officials.
The U.S. is not a member of the ICC.
Human Rights Watch welcomed the ICC’s announcement as a long-overdue step.
The possibility that the ICC investigation may include abuses by U.S. soldiers and Central Intelligence Agency officials drives home the point that with this court, nationals from more powerful countries do not necessarily stand outside the law, according to HRW.
“Whatever the court decides about the role of U.S. forces, the people in Afghanistan who have suffered enormously for decades deserve the world’s attention. More importantly, they deserve justice,” it said.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, says an American soldier has died as a result of wounds sustained during operations Saturday afternoon in the eastern Afghan province of Logar.
"On behalf of U.S. Forces -- Afghanistan, we offer our deepest condolences to the family of our fallen brother," said General John Nicholson, commander, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan.
"Despite this tragic event, we remain steadfast in our commitment to the Afghan people and to support them in our mutual fight against terrorism," Nicholson added.