Kabul, Afghanistan — A U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan has reportedly left at least nine civilians dead and more wounded. The strike on Thursday came as a powerful Taliban suicide attack devastated a hospital in the country's south, killing as many as 20 people, Afghan officials said. The U.S. military suggested the claim of civilian deaths in Nangarhar could be a "ploy" to distract from the carnage at the hospital.
U.S. military spokesman Colonel Sonny Leggett said the U.S. was aware of reports of civilian casualties after forces "conducted a precision strike" targeting ISIS militants in Nangarhar province early Thursday morning. He said 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."
The drone attack in the eastern Nangarhar province left as many as 30 people killed and wounded, most of them civilians, said Jawaid Zaman, presidential adviser on tribal affairs.
District governor Shamsul Haq told French news agency AFP that nine people were killed and six wounded in the strike, all civilians.
"The strike was supposed to target Daesh (ISIS) fighters, but it mistakenly hit the civilians," Nangarhar police spokesman Mubariz Attal told AFP.
Angry residents carried 12 bodies to the provincial capital Jalalabad Thursday morning protesting the attack, said provincial council head Ahmad Ali Hazrat.
Attaullah Khogyani, spokesman for the provincial governor, said the target was ISIS militants in the area, but according to Zaman the local residents had notified the authorities in the area that they would be collecting dried fruit. As many as 50 people were in the fields when the aerial attack occurred, he said.
"We are aware of allegations of the death of non-combatants and are working with local officials to determine the facts to ensure this is not a ploy to deflect attention from the civilians murdered by the Taliban at a hospital in Zabul earlier today," Leggett said in his statement.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing at the hospital, meanwhile. The group has carried out nearly daily attacks since peace talks with the United States collapsed earlier this month.
Thursday's massive explosion destroyed part of the hospital in Qalat, the capital of southern Zabul province, and left a fleet of ambulances broken and battered.
Local residents, many of whom had come to see their sick family members, used shawls and blankets to carry the wounded inside the destroyed building, while authorities scrambled to take the worst of the wounded to hospitals in nearby Kandahar.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed, said in a tweet the target was a nearby intelligence office, which he claimed was destroyed and "tens of intelligence operatives killed/wounded."
Haqbayan said the wall of the National Security Department (NDS) building was damaged. He couldn't say whether any personnel were among the casualties.
President Ashraf Ghani's spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, condemned the attack in Zabul, tweeting that the Taliban "continue to target civilians while their leaders travel to Iran and Russia," a reference to the Taliban negotiators recent forays seeking support abroad.
While the Taliban has continued to kill civilians in attacks it claims are targeting government and security officials, for the first time this year more civilian casualties have been attributed to the Afghan security forces and their U.S. and other international partners than the Islamic extremist group.