U.S. airstrike may have killed 18 civilians, 'nearly all women and children,' UN report says

Los Angeles Times

U.S.-led international forces in Afghanistan are investigating reports that at least 18 civilians were killed in American airstrikes last week, officials said Monday.

The airstrikes occurred Feb. 9 and 10 in Sangin, a heavily contested district in Helmand province where U.S. forces have been offering increased support to Afghan soldiers seeking to dislodge Taliban militants.

The United Nations mission in Afghanistan said over the weekend that “initial inquiries suggest that the airstrikes killed at least 18 civilians, nearly all women and children.”

Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, deputy chief of staff for the U.S.-led coalition, confirmed that the U.S. conducted airstrikes in Sangin last week and said investigators were looking into the reports.

“The investigation is continuing and has not yet reached any conclusions,” Cleveland said.

The U.S. airstrikes come amid a widening battle in Helmand, the poppy-growing province and Taliban haven that saw the most casualties among Afghan civilians in 2016 and the most U.S. military fatalities since the 2001 American-led invasion.

In recent months, hundreds of U.S. troops, operating mainly in an advisory role, have been deployed to the province to assist Afghan soldiers in battling Taliban fighters who have claimed control of most of the districts.

A spokesman for the Afghan defense ministry, Dawlat Waziri, denied the reports of civilian casualties but said the ministry had sent a delegation to Sangin to investigate the incident.

Abdul Ghafar Akhund, a 54-year-old supervisor of polio vaccination programs and prayer leader at a mosque in Sangin, said his wife, two daughters, a son and a daughter-in-law were killed when an airstrike hit his house. A 9-year-old boy was injured, he said.

Akhund, who was away from home, returned to find his house destroyed. He denied that there were Taliban members in the area, saying U.S. troops had visited his neighborhood days before the incident.

“The Americans have been taking revenge on us,” he said. “They don’t differentiate between civilians and noncivilians, women and children. They must coordinate with the Afghan government.”

U.S. airstrikes have been increasing in Afghanistan since former President Obama expanded the military’s authority to conduct operations against the Taliban and Islamic State. The U.N. reported last week that airstrikes caused 250 deaths and 340 injuries in Afghanistan in 2016, twice the number recorded the year before.

Special correspondent Faizy reported from Kabul and Los Angeles Times staff writer Shashank Bengali from Sofia, Bulgaria.

shashank.bengali@latimes.com

Follow @SBengali on Twitter for more news from South Asia

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