An Afghan air strike on a suspected Taliban gathering in the northern province of Kunduz has caused dozens of casualties, including among civilians, officials said.
Abdul Hameed Hameedi, a local police official, said the strike in the Dasht-i Archi district outside Kunduz city on April 2 hit a gathering of Taliban fighters preparing an operation, killing at least 15 and wounding 10.
The Afghan military claimed in a statement that the strike killed at least 15 Taliban militants, including Mullah Beryani, the senior Quetta Shura member. It said 10 people were wounded and no civilians were killed.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said it had dispatched a team to the area to look into “disturbing reports of serious harm to civilians.”
The strike came during the time of year when the Taliban usually announces an annual spring offensive, stepping up attacks in its 16-year war against U.S. forces and the government in Kabul.
Dasht-i Archi has been largely under the control of the Taliban since 2015, and there was conflicting information given to the media about casualties from the April 2 air strike.
Some witnesses and local officials said the strike hit a mosque or madrasah where a graduation ceremony was taking place, and dozens of civilians were killed and wounded.
Mawlawi Abdullah, a provincial council member from Kunduz, told the dpa news agency that around 50 to 60 people were killed when the strike hit a madrasah, or religious school, where Taliban members and civilians had gathered for a graduation ceremony.
A security official told the AFP agency that the Taliban was planning for its annual spring offensive in the madrasah and held the meeting there in hopes of avoiding air strikes.
A statement from the Taliban said the strike killed 150 religious scholars and civilians and denied that any of its forces were present.
A spokeswoman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan said none of their personnel were involved in any air strikes in the area.
Afghanistan’s fledgling air force has accelerated bombardments in recent months as the United States under a new strategy announced last year has beefed up the country’s aerial capability with more aircraft and better weapons.
Building up the nascent Afghan Air Force has been a major priority for the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan, and Kabul’s air corps has had increasing success in supporting ground forces.
The Afghan Air Force recently dropped its first laser-guided bomb on a Taliban compound in the western province of Farah, where the militants have gone on the offensive.
But the incident in Kunduz highlighted one of the risks of the greater use of Afghan air power under the new U.S. strategy, the stated aim of which is to try to force the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Civilian casualties caused by the air strikes have risked undermining public support for the campaign.
Recent figures from the United Nations have shown a rise in the number of civilian casualties caused by air strikes in Afghanistan.
The UN said the Afghan Air Force was responsible for about half of the 630 civilian casualties caused by air strikes last year.