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Afghan Airstrike Said to Target Taliban Mostly Killed Children, U.N. Finds

Posted May 8, 2018 2:18 p.m. EDT

KABUL, Afghanistan — Of more than 100 people killed or wounded in an Afghan government airstrike last month, most were children at a religious gathering, United Nations officials have concluded, contradicting Afghan officials who have claimed that the target was a Taliban planning session.

In a damning report issued Monday, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan stopped short of calling the April 2 airstrike a war crime, but said it raised “questions as to the government’s respect of the rules of precaution and proportionality under international humanitarian law.”

At least 36 people were killed and 71 wounded, of whom 30 of the dead and 51 of the wounded were children, UNAMA found, but the toll may have been much higher. It counted only those casualties that could be confirmed by three independent sources, and said that many other people were reported killed or injured by one or two sources. Some local officials put the death toll as high as 70.

Rights workers described a disturbing pattern of behavior by a government that no longer complains about civilian casualties from airstrikes, now that its own forces are carrying out most of those attacks. U.S. airstrikes, especially in the Kunduz area, once aroused a great deal of government criticism and the United States has at times apologized.

“The rise in civilian casualties from Afghan government air operations is deeply troubling,” said Patricia Gossman of Human Rights Watch. “There is little capacity or commitment to carry out robust investigations; those that are done are ad hoc and — as in this case — never made public.”

A member of the Afghan president’s fact-finding commission, Sangin Tawakalzai, said as recently as Monday that Kunduz officials had claimed only nine had been killed.

The U.N. report said that the airstrike had hit a well-publicized outdoor religious gathering in the Dasht-e-Archi district of Kunduz province, a district that has long been dominated by the Taliban and has seen heavy fighting with government forces. Over 400 posters had been distributed in the area in advance, announcing what was said to be a graduation program at a madrassa, or religious school.

While many local officials said that Taliban officials attended in large numbers, UNAMA said it could not confirm how many of the dead were Taliban. The report said that the 36 confirmed dead were all male, but only six of them were adults, and the others were apparently boys from a nearby religious school.

Government MD-530 helicopter gunships attacked the crowd, firing into a section full of children first, with rockets and .50-caliber heavy machine guns, the report said, describing the arms used as “imprecise weapons.” The children were struck first because they were in the rear of the crowd, and most accessible from overhead.

Afghan officials from the Ministry of Defense and the presidency repeatedly either declined to comment on UNAMA’s findings, or did not respond to inquiries. They have claimed the airstrike was on a Taliban planning session that included several high-ranking Taliban officials.

“I don’t want to comment on figures of civilian casualties provided by UNAMA,” said Shah Hussain Murtazawi, President Ashraf Ghani’s deputy spokesman. “Our investigation also shows that there were some civilian casualties, but the main target was the Taliban gathering.”

Murtazawi said he could not provide further detail, however, because the government’s own report had yet to be formally presented to the president’s National Security Council. He said that the Kunduz attack had prompted the government “to take more measures to prevent civilian casualties in airstrikes,” but he did not specify what those measures were.

Gossman, of Human Rights Watch, said, “The government seems wary of releasing information about large numbers of civilian casualties, since to do so means confronting those in the security forces responsible.”

The United Nations in Afghanistan has also criticized the insurgents, blaming them for the majority of civilian casualties in the war, particularly from suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices that often deliberately target civilians. The latest U.N. report said 67 percent of civilian casualties could be attributed to the insurgents. Until recent months, most aerial attacks in Afghanistan were carried out by U.S.-led coalition forces, and many still are, though with increased standards of caution to avoid civilian casualties, according to U.S. officials. At least four U.S. airstrikes in Kunduz in recent years resulted in claims of civilian casualties.

In one hotly disputed attack just outside Kunduz city last November, the U.S. military launched airstrikes after two of its soldiers had been killed, apparently killing civilians who had been ordered by the Taliban to recover the dead and wounded. The United States at first denied killing any civilians, but reversed its position after an investigation and said 33 civilians had died in the incident.

The U.S. commander, Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., apologized for the loss of life.