As many as 30 civilians were killed in an airstrike on Thursday morning called in to protect US and Afghan troops involved in heavy fighting with the Taliban near Kunduz.
The airstrike, requested after two US service members were killed, had been meant to break a siege around the village of Bouz Kandahari, three miles from the centre of Kunduz, according to Saeed Mahmoud Danish, the spokesman for the provincial governor.
He said the civilians got caught up in the line of fire because the Taliban were using their houses as cover.
The joint operation between Afghan and US forces began late on Wednesday and killed 26 Taliban fighters, including two prominent commanders, according to local officials.
It was not immediately clear who conducted the fatal airstrike.
Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the Afghan defence ministry, said Afghan special forces had conducted airstrikes around the village. The US and Nato mission in Afghanistan said in a tweet: “US forces conducted strikes in Kunduz to defend friendly forces. All civilian casualty claims will be investigated.”
Brig Gen Cleveland, a US military spokesman, said: “As part of an Afghan operation, friendly forces received direct fire and airstrikes were conducted to defend themselves. We take all allegations of civilian casualties very seriously.
“As this was an Afghan operation, we’ll work with our partners to investigate but refer you to them for additional details in the near term. We’ll provide updates as we have them.”
A US airstrike on a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz in October 2015 killed 42 people.
The governor’s spokesman put the number of killed civilians in Bouz Kandahari at 30, while Gen Qasim Jangalbagh, a police official in Kunduz province, said 26 civilians had died.
According to an internal western security report, the US-Afghan forces came under fire and were surrounded until about 6am, when they broke the siege and escaped.
Cleveland said the US soldiers had been killed at about 3am or 4am, but did not release further details.
The Afghan ministry of defence said the two American soldiers, who were “advising” their Afghan counterparts on the ground, were killed in a fire exchange with insurgents, which also killed three Afghan special forces.
Early on Thursday, villagers who tried to transport the dead civilians to the city were reportedly stopped by security forces. Later in the day, residents staged a demonstration, protesting about the killings.
Laghmani, a prominent elder in Kunduz, said local media and community leaders had tried to go to the village where the airstrike took place, but had been stopped by security forces.
The security situation around Kunduz, which Taliban fighters managed to enter last month, a year after they briefly captured the city in their biggest success in the 15-year war, remains precarious.
Although US combat operations against the Taliban largely ended in 2014, special forces units have been engaged in combat, providing assistance to the Afghan army and police.
Thousands of US soldiers remain in Afghanistan as part of the Nato-led Resolute Support training and assistance mission and a separate counterterrorism mission.
A US service member was killed last month on an operation against Islamic State fighters in the eastern province of Nangarhar.
Afghan forces, largely fighting alone since the end of the international combat mission, have experienced thousands of casualties, with more than 5,500 killed in the first eight months of 2016.
This article originally appeared on The Guardian.
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