ISLAMABAD - Afghan authorities said Thursday that at least 30 civilians, including many children, were among those killed in pre-dawn clashes between U.S.-backed government forces and the Taliban in the northern Kunduz province.
The U.S. military confirmed two of its soldiers were also killed in the fighting, and another two were wounded.
The deadly fighting on the outskirts of the provincial capital erupted after Afghan forces with the help of American partners raided an insurgent compound.
“The service members came under fire during a train, advise and assist mission with our Afghan partners to clear a Taliban position and disrupt the group’s operations in Kunduz district,” said a U.S. statement.
A provincial government spokesman, Mehmood Danish, said that four members of the Afghan Commando forces were killed, and “unfortunately the fighting also left at least 30 civilians dead, including women and children." Many, many more wounded, he added. He said the joint operation also inflicted heavy casualties on Taliban insurgents, killing 26.
Earlier, residents carrying the bodies of about 20 people — including children — took to the streets of Kunduz to protest the killing of civilians.
Amnesty International has demanded a prompt, thorough and impartial inquiry into the airstrike blamed for civilian casualties.
"Previous violations of international humanitarian law by U.S./NATO troops still remain uninvestigated and unpunished. This cannot be another example of inaction in the face of such loss of life," said Champa Patel, South Asia Director for the London-based human rights defender.
The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, described the loss of his troops as “heartbreaking” and offered his deepest condolences on behalf of his forces to the families and friends of the victims.
“Our wounded soldiers are receiving the best medical care possible and we are keeping them and their families in our thoughts today, as well," he said.
Despite the tragic event, the general said, U.S. forces are steadfast in their commitment to help Afghan partners defend their nation.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, says that three of its fighters were killed in the pre-dawn clashes, which erupted after the U.S. military raided an insurgent-held compound in Kunduz city.
In a statement sent to media, Mujahid gave a much higher death toll inflicted on U.S. forces and alleged that the deadly clashes prompted “occupying forces,” a reference to the U.S.-led military coalition, to conduct airstrikes on civilian areas, causing many casualties.
Afghan officials say the Taliban often uses civilian localities as shields to conduct insurgent activities.
Kunduz has been under attack from the Taliban for weeks, and the insurgents came close to capturing the city early last month before Afghan forces pushed them back with the help of U.S. air power.
The provincial capital briefly fell to the Taliban about a year ago.
Despite the onset of Afghan winter, there has been no let-up in Taliban attacks, particularly in northern provinces.
Afghan security forces have been able to keep the insurgents from capturing any urban center only with the U.S. assistance, said the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
The U.S. government-monitoring agency in its quarterly report released earlier this week revealed that in the first eight months of 2016, Afghan forces suffered more than 5,500 deaths, while around 10,000 were wounded.
It said the Afghan government also suffered territorial loses during that period. The Taliban has stepped up battlefield attacks since August, inflicting more casualties on government forces.
According to the U.S. military assessment, Afghan forces suffered around 5,000 deaths, while 15,000 were wounded during the entire year of 2015.