ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - Warring sides in Afghanistan have made conflicting claims about an overnight airstrike in the troubled southern Helmand province in which at least 24 people died.
Provincial Governor Hayatullah Hayat told VOA Friday that Afghan army warplanes struck a Taliban base in the Nad Ali district, destroying the facility and killing "24 enemies," including their regional commander, and wounding four others.
A spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry in Kabul, Dawlat Waziri, has also confirmed those details, adding that another overnight strike in the same area destroyed an enemy-run bomb-making factory.
But the Taliban has alleged the attack in Nad Ali was carried out by an American aircraft and it targeted a prison facility.
"The attack killed 22 [personnel] of Afghan army and police captured during recent fighting and were being held at the prison," a statement quoted a Taliban spokesman as claiming. He added that three other captive Afghan forces were wounded and confirmed the killing of three Taliban fighters who were guarding the facility.
Area residents have also supported the Taliban accounts, saying both prisoners and Taliban insurgents were among those killed.
But the provincial governor rejected those claims while speaking to VOA, saying the facility was an active Taliban base and held no prisoners.
US weighs in
A U.S. military representative in Kabul confirmed to VOA that, on Thursday, "U.S. forces conducted two airstrikes in Nad 'Ali district, Helmand province. … We are aware of Taliban claims of Afghan casualties, but after a review of all the intelligence related to these strikes, from before, during and after the strike, we are confident that there were no civilian casualties or captives."
It is difficult to independently ascertain claims by either side because fighting in several districts of Helmand has suspended traffic on key roads leading in and out of the province.
The airstrike took place in an area close to the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, where some 700 American military personnel are deployed to help train and assist Afghan security forces better organize defense and counter-offensive plans.
On Tuesday, a roadside bomb near the city killed a U.S. solider and wounded another along with six Afghan partners.
The American soldiers were on a mission to help Afghan partners “clear out some of the Taliban strongholds” to enable conventional forces to move in, U.S. military spokesman Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland explained.
Lashkar Gah called ‘secure’
Speaking to Pentagon reporters through a video conference Thursday, Cleveland again dismissed reports that the provincial capital was besieged or was on the verge of falling to the insurgents.
"We believe the city of Lashkar Gah is secure right now and we know that there is commerce ongoing, we see people coming and going," Cleveland said.
He added that "outside of Lashkar Gah … there may be some Taliban activity. The Taliban does have the ability to temporarily block this road or that road. … The final piece that were seeing is that they have laid out an awful lot" of improvised explosive devices.
He referred queries about casualties among Afghan forces to the Kabul government, which he suggested keeps statistics. “What we do know is that the pace of the casualties for the Afghans this year has been higher,” he noted.
Medical treatment disrupted?
The international charity Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières, commonly known by its French acronym MSF, said Friday the intensified conflict in the districts surrounding Lashkar Gah has prevented people from reaching the city’s Boost hospital, a 300-bed facility that MSF runs in partnership with the Afghan Public Health Ministry.
A statement released Friday quoted MSF’s Dr. Erlend Gronningen as saying his team is frustrated at the significant drop in admissions at the hospital normally overwhelmed with patients.
"The beds in our pediatric ward and intensive therapeutic feeding center are almost always full of noisy children and young patients, often two to a bed, getting treatment for malnutrition or other life-threatening conditions. Those wards were eerily quiet, and many of the beds were empty. Empty beds are the face of war," Gronningen said while describing the situation.
Helmand, which borders Pakistan, is the largest of all 34 Afghan provinces and a major poppy-producing region. Massive income from the illegal crop also funds the insurgency.
According to the United Nations, the Afghan war has already caused more civilian casualties in the first half of this year compared to the record numbers in 2015.
Intense fighting has also been taking place in northern and northeastern Afghan provinces of Baghlan, Takhar and Kunduz, where residents have lately faced critical shortages of power, water and essential commodities.