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Afghan officials probe claim of 40 civilians killed in Helmand airstrike

US Forces - Afghanistan says the operation targeted al-Qaeda militants who 'presented an imminent threat'

Afghanistan is investigating reports that 40 civilians, including children, were killed in an airstrike during a wedding celebration in southern Helmand province, officials said Monday, September 23.

The defense ministry said it would “share the result of the investigation” into the deaths overnight in Musa Qala district, which come less than a week after a U.S. drone strike killed at least nine civilians in Nangarhar province east of Kabul.

Helmand’s governor said 14 Taliban fighters and six foreigners “were killed in airstrikes conducted by the Afghan special forces,” adding in a statement that authorities were investigating the claims of civilian casualties.

Residents and local officials in Helmand said an evening ceremony, part of a wedding celebration, was underway when security forces launched a ground and aerial operation against suspected militants.

Photos circulating on social media on Monday appeared to show a number of children killed in the strikes.

Majeed Akhundzada, a member of the Helmand provinical council, told AFP that both Afghan and foreign forces had been involved in the fighting.

“Some 40 people were killed and 18 others were wounded and were brought to the hospital, all the victims were civlians,” he said.

Sher Mohammad Akhundza, a provincial senator, also put the toll at 40 dead.

“U.S. forces partnered with Afghan security forces in an operation against al Qaeda terrorists in Musa Qala in Helmand last night,” U.S. Forces – Afghanistan spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Josh T. Jacques told The Defense Post on Monday.

“The massed al-Qaeda figures presented an imminent threat. In the course of the operation several foreigners associated with al-Qaeda were detained, including multiple persons from Pakistan and one from Bangladesh,” he said.

“Because of heavy fighting, we did conduct targeted precision strikes against barricaded terrorists firing on Afghan and U.S. forces. We assess the majority of those killed in the fighting died from al-Qaeda weapons or in the explosion of the terrorists’ explosives caches or suicide vests. The incident is under investigation with our Afghan partners.”

A compound near the wedding venue “was being used to train men and women who were willing to become suicide bombers,” RFE/RL cited an Afghan defense ministry official as saying.

The suicide vest was worn by a foreign militant who killed himself an people around him, including a woman, the report said.

While the Afghan military does have a fledgling air force, most strikes are led or supported by the United States, the only member of the international coalition in Afghanistan that provides aerial support in the conflict.

The Special Mission Wing is part of the Afghan Air Force tasked with supporting Afghan special forces operations. About 90% of its missions are counter-terrorism focused, but it has recently been brought on to support conventional Afghan National Army and police ground operations, a potential misuse of the force, the U.S. watchdog Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said in a report earlier this year.

NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan continues to classify performance and other data on the Special Mission Wing, SIGAR says.

The United Nations documented a sharp rise in civilian deaths from airstrikes last year, as Afghan and U.S. forces intensified the aerial bombardment of Taliban and Islamic State militants.

In May, 14 civilians were killed in airstrikes in three days in Helmand and Kunar provinces, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. UNAMA said in April that Afghan civilians are for the first time being killed in greater numbers by U.S. and pro-government forces than by the Taliban and other insurgent groups.

At least 16 people were killed in an airstrike in Helmand in January when Afghan forces backed by U.S. airpower carried out a counter-terrorism operation in the Sangin district.

This story was updated on September 23, 2019 with a statement from U.S. Forces – Afghanistan.

With reporting from AFP

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