Afghan officials probe civilian deaths in alleged airstrike

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Afghan government is investigating reports that an alleged airstrike over the weekend killed around a dozen civilians, including children, in southern Kandahar province, officials said Monday.

According to Fawad Aman, the Afghan defense ministry's deputy spokesman, the military will soon have its assessment of the allegations of civilian casualties in Arghandab district on Saturday night but declined to provide further details.

Bahir Ahmadi, the provincial governor’s spokesman in Kandahar, said there was a battle in the area at the time and that a Taliban vehicle full of explosives detonated prematurely. The investigators now have to find out exactly how the civilian were killed.

“It is not clear whether the civilian casualties were caused by the enemy explosion or during the battle,” said Ahmadi.

On Sunday, the Taliban claimed that government forces in an airstrike killed at least 13 civilians in Arghandab, prompting a swift denial by the government, which in turn insisted that seven civilians were killed when the Taliban detonated a bomb in the area.

The area of the explosion is remote and difficult to reach, and Taliban and government accounts of the civilian deaths could not be immediately confirmed. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai tweeted his condolences for the dead, calling for an immediate end to the fighting.

A U.S.-based institute warned last week that there has been a dramatic increase in airstrikes conducted by Afghan government forces from July to September this year, attacks that have led to a sharp rise in civilian casualties.

The Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, a research center at Brown University, said in its report that 70 Afghan civilians have been killed in the third quarter of this year, compared to 86 killed in the first six months of 2020.

In its report, the institute also said that from 2017 through 2019, civilian deaths due to U.S. and allied forces’ airstrikes in Afghanistan dramatically increased. In 2019, airstrikes killed 700 civilians — more civilians than in any other year since the beginning of the war in 2001 and 2002.

Violence in Afghanistan has spiked in recent months even as the Taliban and Afghan government negotiators are holding talks in Qatar, trying to hammer out a peace deal that could put an end to decades of war.