Kabul, Afghanistan — An Afghan official claimed Monday that dozens of civilians were killed during a raid on Taliban hideouts by U.S. and Afghan special forces in the southern Helmand province. A U.S. military official confirmed to CBS News that American air power was called in to support the forces during the raid targeting senior al Qaeda members. They said the U.S. was "assessing the claims" of civilian casualties.
There were conflicting reports on the numbers of killed and wounded, but it is just the latest instance of purported civilian casualties blamed on U.S. and Afghan forces as the fight against the Taliban and its partners heats up.
Already 2019 has seen more civilian casualties blamed on Afghan and coalition security forces than on the Taliban.
U.S. military officials told CBS News that at least a dozen militants were killed in the raid in the Taliban-controlled Musa Qala district of Helmand, including several "senior members of al Qaeda."
Omar Zwak, the provincial governor's spokesman in Helmand, said 14 insurgents including six foreigners were killed, but he confirmed there were also reported civilian casualties that the governor's office was investigating.
Zwak and a U.S. military official told CBS News that four people were arrested, including Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals. One of those detained was a woman.
But Abdul Majid Akhundzada, a member of the provincial council in Helmand, said at least 40 civilians, including many women and children, were killed in the operation as a wedding party taking place near the targeted building was caught up in the raid. He said the government had been told in advance that a wedding was taking place, but he did not deny that Taliban militants were known to operate in the area.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's spokesman Sediq Seddiqi said in a statement on Monday that the leader was "saddened and devastated to hear that civilians have lost their lives in an incident in Helmand, despite President Ghani's repeated call for extra cautions in conducting military operations."
"Don't kill us": Civilians "trapped in a war"
A U.S. military official told CBS News that during the operation a suicide bomber came out of the targeted house and blew himself up, killing and wounding "several people" in the house. When other militants opened fire on the Afghan and U.S. special forces, U.S. airstrikes were called in.
Separately a U.S. defense official in Afghanistan told CBS News that there were multiple secondary blasts after the airstrikes, indicating the compound was being used as a weapons cache.
A statement released later Monday by the U.S. military command in Afghanistan confirmed there were "targeted precision strikes," but said, "we assess the majority of those killed in the fighting died from al Qaeda weapons or in the explosion of the terrorists' explosives caches or suicide vests."
One of the U.S. officials who spoke to CBS News earlier said the American military always takes claims of civilian casualties seriously and stressed that these latest reports were being investigated in conjunction with Afghan officials. The official did not dispute the claims that members of a wedding party had been caught up in the violence on Sunday night.
"The locals are trapped in a war between the Taliban and the U.S. and Afghan forces," one local resident told CBS News by phone. "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.'"
The U.S. military often accuses the Taliban of using human shields by operating in areas with a significant civilian presence.
Last week a U.S. drone strike in Nangarhar province, aimed at ISIS militants, purportedly left nine civilians dead. The U.S. military confirmed it was investigating the report of civilian casualties, but noted the U.S. was "fighting in a complex environment against those who intentionally kill and hide behind civilians, as well as use dishonest claims of non-combatant casualties as propaganda weapons."
Nonetheless, with little hope for an imminent peace deal to end the war that began with the post 9/11 U.S. invasion to topple the Taliban in 2001, civilian casualties continue to mount — and continue to be blamed often on the country's own U.S.-backed security forces, or America itself.
As CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata reported last week, with President Trump's cancellation of direct peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban, there is little prospect for any political resolution to the war in Afghanistan at present. While President Trump said recently that the terror groups in the country are being hit "harder than they have ever been hit before," the U.S. death toll continues to rise, and so does the civilian toll.
Also on Monday, the U.S.-led military coalition confirmed that three coalition service members sustained non-life-threatening injuries when one of its vehicle convoys "was fired on in Kandahar province by a member of the Afghan Civil Order Police." The U.S. mission, called Operation Resolute Support, said the attacker was killed by U.S. troops returning fire. Such "insider attacks" have plagued the U.S. mission in Afghanistan for years.
The Taliban and other militant groups were expected to step up their attacks as Afghanistan prepares to hold national elections this weekend.
CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata, and CBS News' Ahmad Mukhtar and Sami Yousafzai contributed to this report.
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