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14 in Afghan family die in US airstrike

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan — Fourteen members of a family, including three small children, were killed in northern Afghanistan when a US airstrike destroyed their home, several Afghan officials confirmed Friday.

In what has become a familiar situation, particularly in Taliban-dominated Kunduz province, Afghan and US officials had initially denied that any civilians had been killed in the strike Thursday, claiming the victims were Taliban fighters.

Then the bodies of 11 women and children appeared at the hospital in Kunduz City, about 4 miles from the site of the attack in Chardara district. The Taliban do not have female fighters and the children were very young.

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Soon after the attack, district officials described the incident as an airstrike that went wrong, in which only civilians were killed.

“There were 12 killed and one wounded by American jets in Chardara district, and all casualties are civilians,” said Abdul Karim, the local police chief. Two other children were later counted as dead because they were known to have been in the house, although their remains could not be found in the rubble, residents and relatives said.

A local resident, Rahimullah, 26, drove the tractor used to excavate the bombed house and pull out the bodies. “I don’t know why they attack civilians,” he said. “I lost my nephews, Farid and Zainullah.” (Rahimullah uses only one name, which is common in Afghanistan).

Residents and local officials said 20 people had lived in the house, all members of an extended family. Of the 14 family members killed, eight were women and three children, officials said. Two other children from the family were hospitalized with serious wounds: a girl, 3; and a boy, 5.

Three other children escaped from the house when the attack began, and one man, the father of the wounded children, was not home at the time of the attack.

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On Friday, the United Nations office in Kabul called the reports “credible” and said it was investigating.

Farther from the scene, however, military officials dismissed the possibility of civilian fatalities.

The executive officer of an Afghan army unit on the front line in Chardara did not mince words. “It is propaganda by the enemy,” the officer, Major Saifuddin Azizi of the 10th commando battalion, said.

“We deny there were any civilian casualties. Foreign troops are our friends and we don’t target civilians,’’ Azizi said. “When the foreign troops decide to attack somewhere, first of all they check everything and then they launch the operation.”

If there were any civilian casualties, Azizi said, the Taliban must have attacked the victims with rockets.

In Kabul, Lieutenant Colonel Martin L. O’Donnell, a US military spokesman, was also unequivocal. “US forces did conduct strikes in support of Afghan-led ground operations in Chardara district, Kunduz province,” O’Donnell said in an e-mail. “An on-the-ground assessment of those strikes reveals no indications they caused civilian casualties.”

By late Thursday, however, provincial authorities in Kunduz had begun to change their accounts, as angry relatives besieged their offices.

Villagers shared cellphone photographs of the bomb site and the victims, and witnesses spoke out. “There wasn’t a single armed person in those homes,” said Hajji Sherin Agha, a local elder.

Nimatullah Timory, the spokesman for the Kunduz governor, retracted earlier official denials. “During an explosion, the type of which is not clear, some Afghan civilians were killed and wounded,” he said. “The governor ordered Afghan forces to help people and investigate the incident.”

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At the national level, doubt began to creep in. Mohammad Radmanish, the spokesman for the Ministry of Defense in Kabul, said that it had been an Afghan operation against terrorists, but added, “as you know, terrorists use civilians as shields.” He said the defense minister had ordered local forces to clarify what had happened.

Later, the Ministry of Defense circulated a statement acknowledging that civilians had been killed and wounded in the attack, without giving details.

“We are really sad about the incident,” the ministry statement read. “A delegation has been sent to the area to investigate and find out why it happened.” The ministry later confirmed that 14 civilians were killed. There were no reports of any insurgent casualties.

The US military, however, maintained that there had been no civilians at the site.

In a statement issued Friday, O’Donnell said the coalition was aware of the Defense Ministry’s change of position and investigation, but “as previously stated, an on-the-ground assessment of our strikes revealed no indications they caused civilian casualties.”

The event was the third time since 2016 that a US airstrike was blamed for civilian deaths in Chardara district, an area that has been heavily dominated by the Taliban but that also partly borders the provincial capital.

On at least six occasions since 2015, US airstrikes in Kunduz have been blamed for civilian deaths.