Group demands release of person who reported Afghan strike

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A prominent rights group Friday demanded the release of a person detained by the government for allegedly providing information to media outlets about an army airstrike this week in which 12 civilians, mostly children, were killed and 18 others wounded.

The order to arrest at least one person accused of speaking about the Wednesday strike in northern Takhar province was made by Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh on Thursday. He tweeted that “the person responsible for the spread of this venomous & fake news was arrested immediately.”

Saleh “is trying to silence those who reported a potentially unlawful airstrike that killed civilians, including many children,” said Human Rights Watch Associate Asia Director Patricia Gossman. She demanded an impartial investigation into the airstrike.

A recent increase in violence nationwide comes as Afghan government representatives and the Taliban are holding peace talks in Qatar, where the Taliban have for years maintained a political office. The negotiations, envisaged under a U.S. deal signed with the insurgents in February, are meant to end Afghanistan’s grueling 19-year war and are seen as the country’s best chance at peace.

Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission in a statement Friday said initial reports show that Afghan forces launched an airstrike Wednesday on a mosque that killed 12 children and wounded 18 others, including a cleric who was teaching the children.

The statement said the airstrike happened when a Taliban convoy passed by the mosque.

The government has not said whether there were any Taliban fighters in the vicinity of a mosque in which several children were studying when Wednesday’s attack took place.

Saleh in a tweet said a Taliban sniper unit that was responsible for killing Afghan special forces was the target of the airstrike.

The Defense Ministry said at least 12 Taliban fighters were killed in the airstrike, adding that the reports about civilian casualties would be investigated.

HRW said “the government has a poor record of investigating such incidents.”

A U.N. report found that civilian casualties from airstrikes carried out by Afghan forces tripled in the first six months of this year, compared to the same time period last year. Afghan forces were responsible for 23% of the civilian casualties, while the Taliban were responsible for 43%, the report said.

According to the report, 1,282 people were killed in violence in the first six months of 2020 and 2,176 were wounded.

A Taliban attack on an Afghan military base in western Nimroz province Thursday killed at least 20 soldiers, wounded three, and three others were taken hostage, Afghan officials said.

Member of parliament Gul Ahmad Noorzad said “weak leadership in the Afghan army and police is the main reason for these types of casualties.”

Another official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, said 23 soldiers were killed and the Taliban took all of the weapons and ammunition from the compound.

Taliban spokesman Yousaf Ahmadi claimed responsibility for the attack.

The Defense Ministry in a statement Friday said a separate airstrike in northern Nimroz killed 21 Taliban fighters, including two of their commanders, and wounded five others. There was no immediate comment from the Taliban on that attack.