KUNDUZ, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Villagers in a Taliban-controlled area of Afghanistan’s Kunduz province buried dozens of dead on Tuesday, a day after an air strike they said hit a religious gathering but which the government said targeted a meeting of insurgent leaders.
Amid conflicting reports of casualty numbers, government officials admitted that a number of civilians had been killed in the strike by Afghan air force helicopters on a village in Dasht-i Archi district where a suspected meeting of Taliban fighters was taking place.
“The Afghan National Army, based on precise information, tried to destroy it to save the people from great disaster but there are reports that unfortunately civilian casualties were also caused in the attack,” President Ashraf Ghani’s office said in a statement.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a tweet its investigators were in the area looking into “disturbing reports of serious harm” to civilians.
The incident is the latest in a series that have underlined the risks from the increased use of air power under a new U.S. strategy announced last year to try to force the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Local villagers said the air force had bombed a ceremony called Dastaar Bandi which celebrates young men completing the memorisation of the Koran, killing dozens of people.
Sayed Jaan, a resident of Dasht-i Archi, said he had attended two funerals for a total of almost 40 people.
“There were two mass graves to bury the victims of the bombing and I took part in both burials. In one grave, 16, and in another, 21. Many were young children,” Sayed Jaan said. “There were other burials and people were digging graves.”
Defence Ministry spokesman Mohammad Radmanish told a news conference in Kabul that aerial footage and images showed Taliban gathered in a compound with vehicles and motorbikes, carrying Taliban and Pakistani flags. Half of the victims had suffered gunshot wounds inflicted by the Taliban, he said.
A senior Afghan defence ministry official said the attack killed at least 35 Taliban and wounded many more. Government officials circulated a list of 13 names they said were of Taliban commanders killed in the strike.
The Taliban, which said on Monday that the strike had killed 150 religious scholars and civilians, repeated a denial that any of their forces had been present.
“The people of Kunduz have witnessed an attack on a religious school during a meeting which had nothing to do with the mujahedin and the majority of the martyrs are children,” it said in a statement responding to Radmanish’s news conference.
A video posted online by the movement showed at least four bodies of children, wrapped in white shrouds. Other images circulated of children and adults being treated in hospital for injuries, but they could not be verified.
Kunduz, which the Taliban briefly seized in 2015, was the scene of one of the most serious civilian casualty incidents in the conflict, when U.S. air strikes destroyed a hospital, killing 42 people, most of them patients and medical staff.
The city has been considered relatively secure over the past year or two but it remains vulnerable and the Taliban control much of the surrounding province, bordering Tajikistan in the far north of the country.
Building up the fledgling government air force has been a priority for the NATO-led Resolute Support training and advisory mission.
Last year, more than 10,000 civilians died or were wounded in the war between Afghanistan’s Western-backed government and the militants, down 9 percent from the previous year, UNAMA said in a report in February.
Reporting by Sardar Razmal in Kunduz; Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in KABUL; Writing by Rod Nickel and James Mackenzie; Editing by Robert Birsel and David Stamp