By Rod Nickel and Abdul Qadir Sediqi
KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. air strikes on alleged Taliban drug labs in Afghanistan in May killed or wounded at least 39 civilians, including 14 children, and violated international humanitarian law as the victims were non-combatants, a United Nations report said on Wednesday.
The U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) issued a statement rejecting the UN report and maintained that there were no casualties in the strikes.
Air strikes on May 5 hit more than 60 sites in the western provinces of Farah and Nimroz, bordering Iran, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and UN Human Rights Office said in the joint report.
Aside from the 39 confirmed casualties, it said U.N. investigators were working to verify credible reports of at least 37 additional civilian casualties, mostly women and children.
"UNAMA has assessed that the personnel working inside the drug production facilities were not performing combat functions," the report said. "They were therefore entitled to protection from attack, and could only have lost this protection if, and for such time, as they had been directly participating in hostilities."
The casualties include at least 30 deaths, the UN said. Seventeen men among the 39 casualties worked in the methamphetamine labs, it said.
Since late 2017, U.S. forces have attacked sites believed to be used for processing drugs as part of efforts to cut off funds to the Taliban militant group.
Facilities that help fund parties who are involved in war are considered civilian objectives under international humanitarian law, and thus drug labs and their workers are unlawful targets, the U.N. report concluded.
The findings, and the legal analysis and methodology used by the UN, were disputed in the statement from U.S. forces.
Assessments conducted by U.S. forces and Afghans conducted after the strikes on the labs determined there were no deaths or injuries to civilians, the U.S. military said.
"USFOR–A is fighting in a complex environment against those who intentionally kill and hide behind civilians, as well as use dishonest claims of non-combatant casualties as propaganda weapons," the statement said. "USFOR–A took extraordinary measures to avoid the deaths or injuries of non-combatants."
Air strikes on reported drug labs have happened before, but this is the first time UNAMA received reports of a high number of civilian casualties, it said. In response to the incident, the UN urged USFOR-A to cease air strikes targeting Afghan drug labs and to conduct an independent investigation.
In a statement, the Taliban said the air strikes proved that the U.S. has committed war crimes in Afghanistan.
UNAMA said it spent four months investigating the incident, including in-person interviews with people affected.
The prevention of civilian casualties is a priority, but when they happen, they are due to the Taliban sheltering among civilians, said Rohullah Ahmadzai, a spokesman for the Afghan defense ministry, adding he was not speaking about this specific situation.
(Reporting by Rod Nickel and Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Alex Richardson)