Dozens of Afghan civilians are dead, local officials said Monday, following operations carried out late Sunday by U.S. and Afghan forces targeting al Qaida fighters.
The incident in the southern province of Helmand, which came just days after a U.S. drone strike killed at least 30 farm workers in eastern Nangarhar province, highlights the fragile situation for civilians as the U.S. enters its 19th year of war in Afghanistan.
Details on exactly how many people were killed and who was responsible for the Sunday attacks remain unclear, a fact attributed at least in part to the area being under Taliban control. The U.S. has blamed the "majority of the deaths" on al Qaida. U.S. and Afghan officials say they're investigating.
The New York Times reported:
Omar Zwak, a spokesman for the Helmand governor, said an undetermined number of civilians were killed after an explosion at an insurgent weapons depot that had been targeted by government forces late Sunday. But Haji Attaullah Afghan, head of the provincial council in Helmand, said a two-vehicle wedding convoy was fired upon by military helicopters, and that civilians were killed in both vehicles.
According to provincial council member Abdul Majid Akhundzada, at least 40 civilians, including many women and children, were killed, CBS News reported.
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Josh Jacques, a spokesman for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan told Stars and Stripes that "we did conduct targeted precision strikes against barricaded terrorists firing on Afghan and U.S. forces," and said the operation was to target militants presenting "an imminent threat."
"The locals are trapped in a war between the Taliban and the U.S. and Afghan forces," one local resident told CBS News. "We told the Taliban, 'don't settle foreign militants near our houses,' we told the Afghan government, 'don't target us if militants live in the middle of our houses, that is not our wish or our fault. We can't stop anyone. Don't kill us.'"
Such pleas follow evidence that civilians have good reason to be fearful of violence.
The Times noted that "[v]iolence has surged in Afghanistan since months of peace negotiations between the United States and the Taliban were aborted on Sept. 7."
And, earlier this year, the United Nations said that U.S.-backed forces killed more Afghan civilians than the Taliban and other armed anti-government groups did in the first three months of 2019.