KABUL — Scores of Taliban insurgents and civilians were killed in Afghan military airstrikes midmorning Wednesday in western Herat province in a gathering celebrating the release of a local Taliban leader from custody. Estimates for the number killed range from eight to 45 and it was not immediately clear how many were civilians.
The bombing was expected to come under heavy criticism in Afghanistan, where aerial attacks that cause civilian casualties are widely condemned. A spokesman for U.S. military forces in Kabul said there was no U.S. role in the attack, and a statement from the Afghan Defense Ministry said it would investigate the reports of civilian deaths.
“The national defense and security forces have the responsibility to protect the lives and property of the people,” the ministry said in a statement. It added it would “not spare any effort” to learn what had happened and would release its findings to the public.
Officials and others in Herat gave conflicting and confused accounts of the incident, the number of casualties and the breakdown between how many of the dead were insurgents or civilians. The airstrikes took place in a rural semi-mountainous district under Taliban control, and unconfirmed reports said the civilian dead included Taliban supporters and relatives.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy who negotiated a peace agreement with Taliban officials in February, said in a tweet Thursday that photographs and “eyewitness accounts” suggest that “many civilians including children are among the victims of an Afghan airstrike. We condemn the attack and support an investigation.” He also condemned ongoing Taliban attacks and said the violence on both sides should be curbed to pave the way for peace talks among Afghans. “More graves will not bring negotiations forward,” he said.
A Taliban spokesman, Mohammad Yousuf Ahmadi, said in a statement that two airstrikes in Herat had killed eight civilians and wounded 12. He said that “such attacks will compel recently freed prisoners who wish to live normal lives to take up arms once more against the enemy.”
A witness to the attack said that some 200 people had gathered to welcome back Ghulam Nabi, a local insurgent leader who had been released from prison. One unconfirmed report said some of his female relatives had died in the attack.
Noor Rahmati, a survivor and distant relative who had come to congratulate the former prisoner, said in a telephone interview Thursday that as he and his family were leaving the gathering Wednesday morning, several Afghan army helicopters dropped bombs on the site.
“I was with my family and we were driving away when the helicopters came. We were inside the car and they hit us. I lost three family members, and five were wounded,” said the 28-year-old nurse from a hospital in Herat city. He said he had seen eight bodies and 13 wounded people at the site.
A major stumbling block for long-delayed intra-Afghan peace talks has been a dispute over the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners. The Afghan government has refused to release about 400 of them, saying they are criminals or hardened combatants who would immediately return to battle.
Civilian casualties remain a major concern among the Afghan public, as the violent conflict has continued for months after the bilateral agreement was signed. In the first half of this year, 1,232 civilians were killed and 1,744 wounded in conflict incident, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported.
Sharif Hassan contributed to this report.