Distraught relatives of children killed in a government air raid targeting Taliban fighters in Afghanistan’s Kunduz province have rejected official claims that no civilians were killed in the attack as “dishonest”.
A religious school in the Dasht-e-Archi district of the northern province was hit late on Monday.
The Afghan government said the raids targeted a Taliban gathering, but witnesses and local officials maintained that at the time of the attack, a Dastaar Bandi ceremony – an event celebrating young men completing the memorisation of the Quran – was taking place at the school.
There are conflicting reports over the number of people killed in the attack, and under which circumstances.
A district official said a total of 70 people – including children and top Taliban commanders – were killed, while witnesses put the death toll to at least 100. Nematullah Temori, spokesman for the provincial governor, said seven civilians were killed in the attack.
But General Mohammad Radmanish, spokesman for the defence ministry, said that according to their intelligence, no civilians were present at the time of the air raid.
He told Al Jazeera that the air raid targeted a Taliban gathering where members of the group were discussing plans to capture Kunduz city.
“The Taliban were gathered in a room planning their next move to take over Kunduz city.
“We have surveillance footage of armed men and pictures of Taliban leaders in the area that was attacked,” he said, adding that 18 Taliban commanders were killed in the raid.
Radmanish said the civilians killed in the attack could be the result of “an attack we are not aware of”.
“The government is investigating the death of these civilians.”
Radmanish also said that the civilians admitted into hospitals were hit by bullets, a claim denied by the father of one of the victims.
“My son, a 13-year-old, had finished his Quran and was being recognised at the ceremony. He was well-dressed and was very happy upon his accomplishment,” Abdul Khalid told Al Jazeera.
“His body had no signs of bullet wounds. He was killed in the air raid, not by firing.
“My son is dead now, and I buried him yesterday. I don’t understand why would they attack children? We need to know the truth,” he said, calling the government “dishonest”.
Abdul Matin Atifi, head of public health in Kunduz, told reporters that hospitals in the city received the bodies of 30 civilians.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani acknowledged in a statement that the air raids had caused civilian casualties, but said that they were aimed at a meeting by Taliban fighters who had gathered to discuss an attack.
“The Afghan National Army, based on precise information, tried to destroy it to save the people from great disaster but there are reports that unfortunately civilian casualties were also caused in the attack,” the statement said, adding that an investigation would be opened.
Kunduz resident Faiz Mohammed said his two younger brothers – Mirwais, 11 and Ahmed, 12 – were participating in the ceremony and managed to escape the attack.
“They are still in shock and are very sad because they lost their friends,” he told Al Jazeera.
After the attack, Faiz Mohammed rushed to the site and described devastating scenes.
“There were so many children and mullahs lying on the ground screaming in pain. Many were in shock,” he said.
United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said on Twitter that a human rights team on the ground will independently probe the incident.
Afghanistan‘s air force, backed by US-led NATO coalition advisers, has accelerated aerial raids in the country in recent months to push the Taliban to the negotiating table. However, civilians have reportedly been killed in several incidents.
Earlier this month, a unit of the Afghan security and intelligence forces carried out a deadly raid in two villages in the Chaparhar district of Nangarhar province which resulted in the death of seven farmers, including two teenagers.
Afghan officials maintained that the people killed in the attack were Taliban fighters.
On January 31, Afghan special forces backed by US air raids launched an offensive against Taliban fighters in the Maiwand district in Kandahar, according to a Human Rights Watch report, released in February.
At least 20 civilians were killed in the operation, the report said.