Afghan military strike kills at least 70 at mosque
KABUL — Afghan military helicopters bombed a religious gathering in the northern province of Kunduz on Monday, killing at least 70 people and wounding 30 others, according to a local official in the area.
The official, Nasruddin Saadi, district governor of Dasht-e-Archi, said the helicopters attacked a religious ceremony for which about 1,000 people had assembled in a mosque and surrounding fields around noon.
Witnesses reached by telephone said the mosque was also a madrassa, or religious school, and that members of the Taliban had been present at the assembly, which had been organized to recognize graduates, appoint mullahs, and elevate junior mullahs.
Saadi said the event was religious in nature and that the security forces decided to attack because armed militants were in attendance.
Brigadier General Mohammad Radmanish, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, denied the gathering had been for religious purposes and said the operation targeted the Taliban, not worshipers.
“The Taliban and other insurgent groups were planning to attack Afghan forces, but their plan was discovered by our forces,” Radmanish said.
Radmanish said the airstrike in the Dasht-e-Archi district of Kunduz province killed more than 30 Taliban fighters, including nine commanders, the Associated Press reported. ‘‘I can confirm that a Taliban training center was bombed and no civilians were present,’’ he said.
But witnesses said children and other civilians were among the victims.
Dasht-e-Archi is a Taliban stronghold that has often been the scene of heavy fighting. In May, a US drone strike in the district killed Mullah Abdul Salam, the Taliban “shadow governor” of Kunduz.
In 2016, an Afghan airstrike killed another prominent Taliban commander, Mawlavi Muawiyah, in Dasht-e-Archi, along with 21 other fighters, according to the military.
US airstrikes in the area have repeatedly been blamed for civilian casualties, and Afghan forces are increasingly taking over air operations there.
A 40-year-old farmer from the district, who gave his name only as Mohammad, said there had been a small number of armed Taliban fighters among the crowd at the assembly, but that most of the attendees were civilians, including madrassa students and graduates.
He said that many children had been present, and that the first rockets fired by the helicopters had hit a group of youngsters.
The farmer was unable to say how many had been killed or hurt, but added that one of the wounded was his nephew, age 10.
“Children come to any gathering where there is a free lunch,” he said.
A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid, said the death toll was far higher than the official figure and that no insurgents had been present at the gathering, which was strictly religious in nature. Many Taliban commanders are also mullahs.
“Bombing civilians and then calling them mujahedeen is a habit of the Americans and their slaves,” Mujahid said, adding that 150 people had died in the military strike. “Those responsible for killing civilians and insulting religion will be brought to justice.”
Separately in the southern Helmand province, at least 48 schoolgirls fell ill at a high school Monday in what provincial authorities suspect is a case of mass poisoning, the AP reported.
Dr. Nisar Ahmad Barak said the girls were admitted to his hospital in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, with headaches and vomiting, but were in stable condition and receiving treatment. He did not have any details.
Ahmad Bilal Haqbeen, deputy director at Helmand’s education department, said the girls attend 11th grade at the city’s Central Girls School. He said an investigation is underway. Both officials said the girls were deliberately poisoned.
Most of Helmand province is under the control of the Taliban, who oppose girls’ education.
The US military is racing to demonstrate it is making progress in Afghanistan during a critical period that will test President Trump’s strategy, The Washington Post reported.
Military leaders say the arrival of new troops and aircraft, along with a renewed mission to advise local operations more closely, will help reverse a Taliban resurgence that has exposed the fragility of the long American war.
‘‘This is not another year of the same thing we've been doing for 17 years,’’ General Joseph Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a tour of military facilities across Afghanistan last week. ‘‘This is a fundamentally different approach.’’
With an increased US force of about 15,000, focused largely on efforts to ensure Afghan troops can launch offensives against the Taliban, Dunford said that ‘‘the right people at the right level with the right training’’ are in place ahead of the 2018 fighting season, a sentiment repeated by other commanders.
Yet looming over the battlefield push are questions about how long support can be sustained, given skepticism in Europe about an open-ended military effort and ambivalence from Trump about involvement in foreign wars.
The stepped-up campaign comes as the main force behind Trump’s Afghanistan strategy, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, prepares to exit the White House. His successor, John Bolton, may be a less ardent proponent of a stepped-up US campaign.
Dunford’s tour was one of several high-level visits in recent weeks, including stops by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and General Joseph Votel, who heads US Central Command.
Over four days, generals and advisers traveling with Dunford fanned out across the country to gather information on the readiness of Afghan forces and their foreign advisers.