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Residents say airstrikes kill at least 14 civilians in northern Afghanistan

The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan said Sunday that it was investigating reports that at least 14 civilians were killed in airstrikes in the northern province of Kunduz, where U.S. and Afghan forces have been waging a heavy battle against Taliban militants.

Local officials said the victims included four children. They said 13 other civilians were wounded Saturday in the province’s Chardara district.

Mawlawi Khosh Mohammad, a member of the Kunduz provincial council, said the civilians were victims of “foreign airstrikes.” U.S. warplanes carry out the vast majority of airstrikes in Afghanistan.

Lt. Jason Tross, a spokesman for the U.S.-led NATO coalition, confirmed that Afghan and international forces conducted a joint operation in Kunduz on Saturday but said he did not have additional information.

The coalition “takes all allegations of civilian casualties and the responsibility of human life seriously, and is assessing the facts surrounding this incident,” Tross said. “We will release more information as appropriate.”

The operation involved Afghan army commandos, the country’s most active ground force, whose leadership issued a statement saying that 57 Taliban fighters were killed, including the insurgent group’s “shadow governor” in Chardara.

But the commandos denied the residents’ reports, saying, “Neither the commandos nor the civilians have suffered casualties.”

Kunduz has been the scene of intense clashes between coalition forces and Taliban militants since 2015, when the insurgents briefly overran the provincial capital, Afghanistan’s fifth-largest city. As U.S. forces have become heavily involved in the fighting, they have also been implicated in civilian casualties.

In November 2016, a joint operation by U.S. soldiers and Afghan special forces in Kunduz resulted in the deaths of 33 civilians, according to a U.S. military investigation.

A year earlier, a U.S. airstrike mistakenly hit a Doctors Without Borders humanitarian hospital in Kunduz, killing at least 42 people.

Residents of Kunduz said the operation in Chardara had been going on for three days, but the extent of the damage in the village of Gharaw Qishlaq was not yet clear because government forces were restricting entry to the area.

Azizullah Erkin, a 28-year-old agriculture student, said by phone that the airstrikes took place after Afghan forces launched an attack in Gharaw Qishlaq. Residents had gone to retrieve bodies of those killed in the clashes when the airstrikes occurred, killing more than a dozen people, he said.

“We still have some bodies that have not been taken out of the debris,” Erkin said.

Faizy is a special correspondent.

shashank.bengali@latimes.com

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