ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - A joint military operation in northern Afghanistan in early November killed 33 Afghan civilians and wounded 27, the U.S. military said Thursday in releasing details of its investigation into the incident.
The attack in Boz village in restive Kunduz province flattened dozens of houses, residents and Taliban insurgents said. The joint operation was conducted to capture Taliban leaders who were plotting to seize the provincial capital of Kunduz, Afghan and U.S. military officials said.
"To defend themselves and Afghan forces, U.S. forces returned fire in self-defense at Taliban who were using civilian houses as firing positions," U.S. military officials said.
"Regardless of the circumstances, I deeply regret the loss of innocent lives. … I wish to assure President [Ashraf] Ghani and the people of Afghanistan that we will take all possible measures to protect Afghan civilians," the statement quoted General John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, as saying.
Afghan special forces had planned the raid against the Taliban hideout in Kunduz with the help of a small group of American military advisers. But the insurgents swiftly engaged them, opening fire from multiple civilian buildings, the U.S. military said in its investigation.
"U.S. and Afghan forces were forced to request aerial fire support from U.S. platforms in self-defense. Aerial fires were also used to suppress Taliban who were firing on U.S. medical evacuation assets as the dead and wounded were evacuated," it said.
No further action
It has been determined that no further action will be taken because U.S. forces acted in self-defense and followed all applicable law and policy, the statement said.
Human Rights Watch said Thursday that while there have been "some improvements in the way such operations were conducted," U.S. and Afghan forces must take care to ensure that they "minimize harm to civilians." The attacks, it said, "may be neither indiscriminate nor cause disproportionate civilian loss."
The international rights watchdog also urged the U.S. government to "provide timely and adequate compensation to victims of airstrikes."
The U.S. military said it would not offer compensation payments to the victims' families, something the Pentagon previously has offered to civilian victims of its counterterror or counterinsurgency operations.
"The government of Afghanistan made condolence payments to the families of those killed in the operation and to those wounded," Captain Bill Salvin, director of public affairs for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told VOA.
The fire exchange killed two U.S. soldiers, three Afghan commandos and 26 Taliban militants, including their leader, the military statement said. Roughly 26 Taliban were wounded, it said.
"A Taliban ammunition cache was struck and exploded, which also destroyed multiple civilian buildings and may also have killed civilians," the statement said.
The Taliban insurgency claimed at the time that only three of its members were in the area when they came under attack from Afghan and U.S. forces.
Medical facility hit
A U.S. airstrike in Kunduz in October 2015 hit a facility run by the medical charity Doctors Without Borders, killing at least 42 people, including 24 patients and 14 staff. About 40 people were wounded in the raid, which destroyed the only treatment center in the area.
The attack happened after the Taliban had briefly captured Kunduz. Days later, Afghan forces, with the help of U.S. air power, evicted the insurgents from the city.
The U.S. military said the attack that hit the medical facility was a "mistake" and apologized for it. That did not calm MSF criticism or ease demands for an impartial inquiry into the incident.
Kunduz province has since been under attack from the Taliban, and the insurgents came close to retaking the provincial capital in October.
VOA's Afghan service contributed to this report.