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Afghan airstrike targeting Taliban in religious school kills and injures civilians

Updated April 2

An Afghan airstrike on a religious school in a Taliban stronghold in Dasht-e-Archi district of Kunduz province caused multiple casualties, including civilians, Afghan officials and witnesses said.

Top Taliban commanders were gathered inside the madrassa where a graduation ceremony was underway at the time of the strike on Monday, April 2 in the northeastern province of Kunduz, a security source told AFP.

He said an unknown number of civilians were among the casualties that also included senior Taliban commanders who were “planning for the next spring operations.”

Residents said more than 200 people were at the madrassa at the time of the airstrike, TOLOnews reported.

“Several dead and at least 15 wounded,” including children, were taken to the regional hospital in the provincial capital Kunduz, Naim Mangal, a doctor, told AFP.

Relatives of the wounded told an AFP photographer at the hospital that the attack happened during a graduation ceremony at the madrassa in Dasht-e-Archi district, which is controlled by the Taliban.

“When the planes came at around 12 p.m. some kids screamed ‘they will drop a bomb’ but the elders said ‘calm down, nothing is going to happen,’ but then in an instant bombs hit the mosque,” Mohammad Ishaq told AFP.

It was not clear if the madrassa was inside the mosque or was a separate building. Images shared on social media said to be the aftermath of the strike appeared to show an open-air or under-canvas event.

Ishaq said civilians, students and some Taliban members, who had been invited to attend the ceremony, were inside the mosque at the time of the attack. There were three airstrikes which “destroyed” the building, he added.

“I escaped unhurt but many people were killed and injured and I saw their bodies laying on the ground,” he said.

A defense ministry spokesman confirmed an airstrike in Dasht-e-Archi district but described the location as a kind of Taliban “training center,” and denied civilians were among the casualties.

“Twenty Taliban, including the commander of their Red Unit in the district, and also a key member of the Quetta Shura were killed,” Mohammad Radmanish said, adding that another 20 were injured.

The Quetta Shura is the group’s leadership council and the Red Unit or Red Division is a new elite fighting unit.

According to a TOLOnews report, the Red Division has emerged in Kunduz in the past few months and specialises in night attacks. The well-equipped unit is based in the area bordering Afghanistan and Tajikistan and has some foreign fighters.

Provincial police said Quetta Shura official Mullah Beryani was in the school at the time of the strike, TOLOnews reported.

Ghulam Hazrat, a spokesman for the 20th army division in Kunduz, told AFP the meeting included a “high-ranking Taliban delegation” from the Quetta Shura.

“Fifteen Taliban were killed and 10 were wounded,” Hazrat said. He denied civilians were among the casualties.

A senior local official said “around 150” people had been killed and wounded in the airstrike.

The Taliban issued a statement confirming the attack on the madrassa but denied militants had been meeting at the school.

Around 150 religious scholars and civilians – most of them children – were among the dead and wounded, the group added.

Afghan officials often give conflicting casualty figures after an attack.

Obtaining detailed information is difficult because the Taliban controls the area. Most telecommunication services are cut from late afternoon on Taliban orders, locals say.

A spokesperson for U.S. Forces Afghanistan said they did not conduct airstrikes in the area on Monday.

“U.S. Forces-Afghanistan did not conduct air strikes in Kunduz province today. Any claims to the contrary are baseless,” USFOR-A spokesperson Army Colonel Lisa Garcia said in an emailed statement, Reuters reported.

Afghanistan’s fledgling air force has accelerated bombardments in recent months as the Americans beef up the country’s aerial capability with more aircraft and better weapons.

TOLOnews tweeted that an Afghan Air Force A-29 Super Tucano carried out the airstrike.

Earlier this month, the Afghan Air Force used an A-29 Super Tucano to drop its first laser-guided bomb in combat on a Taliban compound in the western province of Farah, where the militants have gone on the offensive.

U.S. and Afghan forces are increasing ground and air offensives against Taliban and Islamic State insurgents as they try to get the upper hand in the 16-year war.

The latest airstrike comes weeks before the Taliban usually launches its spring offensive which is expected to be particularly bloody this year.

Afghan Air Force A-29 drops first laser-guided bomb against Taliban

With reporting from AFP

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