An investigation by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan concluded that an Afghan Air Force strike on a religious school in the Taliban-controlled Dasht-e-Archi district of Kunduz province killed and wounded at least 107 people, including 81 children.
The Afghan government has said that the April 2 MD-530 helicopter strike targeted a gathering of senior Taliban ‘Red Unit’ leaders who were meeting next to the madrassa where hundreds of people had gathered for a graduation ceremony. The military initially denied civilians were among the dead and wounded, but later blamed the Taliban for shooting them.
“UNAMA questions the extent to which the Government undertook steps and concrete measures to prevent civilian casualties, in accordance with its Civilian Casualty Mitigation Policy,” the mission said in a report released on Monday, May 7.
“A key finding of this report is that the Government used rockets and heavy machine-gun fire on a religious gathering, resulting in high numbers of child casualties.”
The U.N. was able to verify that 30 children were killed and 51 injured. Six adult men were killed and 20 wounded, it said. Between 500 and 1,500 men and boys had attended the ceremony for nine madrassa students who had completed a memorization of the Quran. No women or girls were killed in the strikes as it was a male-only event, UNAMA said.
UNAMA confirmed the ceremony was widely publicized and known in the area of Laghmani village, with 400 posters advertising it and special guests from around the country.
“Those victims and witnesses interviewed by UNAMA consistently reported that helicopters approached and fired rockets into the crowd, striking children sitting at the rear of the ceremony first,” the report said.
“UNAMA received multiple accounts from victims and witnesses that after the first rocket struck the crowd and people ran towards the nearby road and houses, the helicopters continued to launch rockets in the village and fire machineguns, reportedly following the path of individuals fleeing the area.”
The strike threatens to undermine Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s efforts at reconciliation with the Taliban, including a plan that involves a ceasefire, prisoner release and recognition of the group as a legitimate political party
The Taliban has vowed revenge for the strike, saying that its own investigation found over 200 casualties, including 59 deaths, mainly children, scholars and elderly men.
Unarmed members of the Taliban were in attendence, witnesses told the mission, while others said armed fighters were providing security. The Afghan government maintains that 18 Taliban commanders were killed, but UNAMA said it was not able to confirm the civilian status of each casualty, nor was it in a position to determine “the presence or actions of Taliban leaders or units at the time of the airstrike,” but the numbers in the report do not include anyone whose civilian status was questionable.
Additionally, the mission noted that its verification process requires confirmation by three independent sources, and the final death toll may be much higher than the numbers it was able to confirm. Ghani has appointed a commission to investigate reports of civilian casualties.