KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — An Afghan airstrike on Friday that targeted Taliban fighters inside an abandoned army base in southern Helmand province killed at least 20 people, including some civilians, reports said.
There were conflicting accounts about the site of the strike and the number of casualties, adding to concerns that as the U.S. military and NATO forces complete their pull out from the war-battered country, Afghanistan would sink into more violence and turmoil.
The military said its air force and troops struck the Taliban in the province's Nahr Saraj district as they were looting weapons and ammunition from the base. It said 20 Taliban fighters and a “few civilians” who were looting with the insurgents were killed.
The Taliban claimed they overran the base, located along a west-south highway linking the cities of Kandahar and Herat, late Thursday.
The insurgents said the death toll on Friday stood at 30 killed, and that all the fatalities allegedly are civilians. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid accused the Afghan army of conducting airstrikes against civilians.
Both the Taliban and government forces routinely blame each other for attacks in Afghanistan. The assailants are rarely identified and the public is seldom informed of the results of investigations into the many attacks in the capital.
A resident of the area who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussion from both the government and the Taliban, said only civilians were inside the base that had been abandoned by the army, “taking some of the items."
He claimed over 80 people had gathered around the base — allegedly all civilians and passersby — and watched from the highway when the strike happened. He said several trucks and oil tankers caught fire in the strike.
Adding to the controversy, provincial council member Abdul Majid Akhund said the victims were all civilians. However, Helmand council chief Attaullah Afghan said they were unarmed Taliban members.
Officials could not be reached in remote Nahr Saraj district as phone lines with the area were not working.
The United Nations has repeatedly demanded both sides take more precautions to protect civilians. In the first three months of this year, the U.N. mission in Afghanistan said that 1,783 civilians had been killed or wounded in Afghanistan, an increase of 29% over the same period last year.
Tameem Akhgar, The Associated Press