American military officials here acknowledged Saturday that U.S. airstrikes in embattled Kunduz Province on Thursday had "likely resulted in civilian casualties" when Afghan and U.S. forces, searching for a reported meeting of Taliban leaders in a village, faced "significant enemy fire" and called for air support.
The American officials did not provide numbers or details of the casualties, but Afghan officials and witnesses have said that 30 civilians, including numerous women and children, were killed and about 25 others wounded when their homes in Bozi Kandahari village were bombed as the families slept. Two U.S. service members and three Afghan Special Operations forces were also killed in fighting there.
The civilian deaths have drawn sharp criticism from rights groups and some Afghan leaders, including former president Hamid Karzai, who has long complained that Western bombings and raids cause needless deaths and undermine the war against Taliban insurgents.
Thursday's incident came just over a year after an errant U.S. airstrike in Kunduz City killed 42 people in an emergency hospital amid heavy fighting. Taliban fighters, who seized the strategic northern city for more than one week last October, attacked it again two months ago and have remained active in the surrounding area ever since, taking cover in residential areas to avoid capture.
Gen. John W. Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, issued a statement saying, "I deeply regret the loss of innocent lives, regardless of the circumstances. The loss of innocent life is a tragedy and our thoughts are with the families." He said U.S. military officials will work with Afghan authorities to investigate the incident and provide assistance to the villagers.
American and Afghan military officials spoke at a joint news conference here Saturday, although their accounts of the events Thursday differed slightly. The U.S. officials said Afghan forces, with assistance from American advisers, raided the village in search of "Taliban leaders who were planning additional attacks" in Kunduz City.
Coming under heavy fire from "multiple locations," they said, the forces "defended themselves with ground fire and U.S. air-to-ground engagements." The Americans said several Taliban leaders and members were apparently killed in the clashes, but that the insurgents "continue to pose a threat to Kunduz."
Afghan military officials gave a more detailed description, saying the raid had been prompted by intelligence reports that a senior Taliban leader in the area, Maulvi Mutaqi, was holding a meeting in a certain house in Bozi Kandahari. Late Wednesday, they said, Special Forces were lowered into the village from helicopters.
"After our commandos descended, they came under fire from four directions. That's when we asked for air support," Gen. Mohammed Radmanash, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, said in an interview. He said both U.S. and Afghan attack helicopters responded, and that Mutaqi and more than 20 other Taliban were killed.
"The cause of the civilian casualties are the Taliban, because they use people's homes to shelter and hide," Radmanash added. The senior defense spokesman, Gen. Dawlat Waziri, said some of the civilians killed in the airstrikes were family members of two local Taliban leaders.
But a senior leader of Bozi Kandahari, in a lengthy telephone interview Saturday, denied there were any Taliban members in the village and said government forces had been harassing the residents because they were originally from Kandahar, the birthplace of the ethnic Pashtun Taliban in southern Afghanistan. Most Kunduz natives are of Tajik or Uzbek ethnic origin.
The leader, a livestock trader who gave his name as Jamaluddin, said everyone in the village was asleep late Wednesday when armed troops appeared, putting up ladders to rooftops and breaking through doors.
"There were Afghans and foreigners. They were screaming at everyone not to move," he said. He said some villagers began defending themselves with stones and other objects. Then the bombing started and continued for five hours, he said.
"My cousin Noor Ali and 18 of his family members were killed. Their house was destroyed and parts of it are still burning," Jamaluddin said. "We buried the dead yesterday, but neighbors are still going through the rubble, looking for anyone who is alive or for bodies to bury."
He said four houses were bombed, killing 35 people including 18 children and 8 women.
"You need to ask the authorities why they did this. There were no Taliban here, but we as Muslims have to defend our honor and privacy," he said. "If there were Taliban here, the government forces wouldn't have dared to come."
Jamaluddin said both government and Afghan fighters enter the village often. "We are hospitable to both sides. But the government considers us all Taliban, just because we come from Kandahar," he said. "If they keep behaving this way, everyone in Kunduz will rise up and become a Taliban themselves."
President Ashraf Ghani expressed sadness over the casualties and sent a delegation to the village to investigate the bombings. Karzai was far more critical, saying his concern over civilian casualties made him refuse to sign a security agreement with Washington, which Ghani signed as soon as he took office. Today, about 10,000 American forces remain in Afghanistan, along with combat aircraft which they are allowed to use to assist Afghan ground forces in trouble.