US probe clears forces over civilian deaths in Kunduz

U.S. probe clears forces over civilian deaths in northern Afghan city

A U.S. military investigation confirmed that dozens of Afghan civilians were killed in a special forces operation near the northern city of Kunduz last year, but found troops had acted in self-defence and decided no action would be taken against them.

The report, published on Thursday, said 33 civilians were killed and 27 wounded last November when a U.S. and Afghan special forces unit returned fire against Taliban fighters in the village of Boz, near Kunduz, and called in air support.

"The investigation concluded that U.S. forces acted in self-defence, in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict, and in accordance with all applicable regulations and policy," the U.S. military in Afghanistan said in a statement.

The raid, involving both U.S. and Afghan special forces, took place during operations to push back Taliban fighters from the vicinity of Kunduz, the strategic city they had come close to overrunning in October.

The unit came under heavy fire from Taliban fighters using civilian houses as firing positions and suffered several casualties before calling in air support, the military added.

"Regardless of the circumstances, I deeply regret the loss of innocent lives," Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan said in the statement, adding that "all possible measures" would be taken to protect Afghan civilians.

While the investigation concluded that more than 30 civilians had been killed, it said aircraft providing support had used "the minimum amount of force required to neutralize the various threats from the civilian buildings".

It also found that no civilians were seen or identified, and the dead and wounded were probably inside the buildings used by Taliban fighters. Some of the casualties may also have been caused by a Taliban ammunition dump that exploded.

Two U.S. soldiers and three Afghan army commandos were killed and another four Americans and 11 Afghan commandos wounded, with around 26 Taliban fighters also killed.

Last year, the U.S. military disciplined 16 service members over a separate incident in Kunduz in 2015, when a U.S. air strike killed 42 people in a hospital run by medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres.

© REUTERS/ Nasir Wakif An Afghan man inspects a house destroyed during an air strike called in to protect Afghan and U.S. forces during a raid on suspected Taliban militants, in Kunduz.


Kunduz Attack in November Killed 33 Civilians, U.S. Military Says

A United States military investigation into claims of civilian casualties during a joint operation by Afghan and American forces found that 33 civilians were killed and 27 others were wounded during a firefight and airstrikes in Kunduz Province last year, American military officials said on Thursday.

In early November, Afghan Special Forces, accompanied by American military advisers, came under intense fire during an operation to arrest Taliban commanders in Boz Qandahari, a village in Kunduz, the United States military command in Afghanistan said in a statement. They called in American airstrikes, which resulted in some of the civilian casualties.

Two American soldiers and three Afghan commandos were killed, and four American soldiers and 11 commandos were wounded, the statement said.

“Regardless of the circumstances, I deeply regret the loss of innocent lives,” said Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the commander of United States forces in Afghanistan. “On this occasion, the Taliban chose to hide amongst civilians and then attacked Afghan and U.S. forces.”

“I wish to assure President Ghani and the people of Afghanistan that we will take all possible measures to protect Afghan civilians,” he added, referring to Ashraf Ghani.

After the battle in Kunduz, a New York Times reporter counted 22 bodies being brought into the city on the way to the hospital there. Among them were 14 children, four women, two older men and two men of fighting age. They were accompanied by a large group of protesters from Boz Qandahari, the village that was hit.

Residents of Boz Qandahari, however, said that the investigation had underestimated the number of civilians killed and that the claim of Taliban firing at the forces from their homes was not true.

“My father was a shopkeeper — he had a grocery shop close to our house. My brother and I were farmers. We had never had a weapon. I and no one in my family knows how to use a weapon,” said Mohammed Reza, 29, who lost seven family members in the bombing and was stuck in the rubble of their house for hours. “I lost my father, my brother, my brother’s wife, my son and three of my nephews who were between 1 and 7 years old.”

Dad Mohammed, 45, said he was aware of at least 37 killed among his own relatives.

“There were no Taliban among us, there was no Taliban in our house. Except for one former Talib, who was disabled and had lost a leg and he was our cousin,” he said. “He was killed along with his father, his wife and five children. His brother was also killed.”

Mr. Mohammed said the Taliban stronghold in the area was obvious, but it was far from the areas that had been bombed.

“This was an act of oppression,” he said. “We are also humans. It should be investigated by an international court, and we need to be compensated for our loss.”

Kunduz is also where a United States military gunship mistakenly targeted a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in October 2015, killing at least 42 people and destroying much of the hospital.


US military says November firefight with Taliban left 33 civilians dead

The U.S. military in Afghanistan said on Thursday that its investigation into a November firefight with the Taliban in northern Kunduz province has shown that 33 civilians died in the raid during which U.S. troops fired on Afghan homes.

The probe followed claims that civilian deaths resulted from airstrikes called in to support Afghan and U.S. forces who came under fire in the province's village of Buz-e Kandahari, which targeted two senior Taliban commanders.

The two Taliban figures, responsible for violence in Kunduz the previous month, were killed in the operation.

According to a U.S. military statement, the investigation "determined, regretfully, that 33 civilians were killed and 27 wounded" as troops responded to fire from "Taliban who were using civilian houses as firing positions."

After the raid, Kunduz residents carried over a dozen corpses of the dead, including children and family members of the Taliban fighters, toward a local governor's office in a show of rage.

"Regardless of the circumstances, I deeply regret the loss of innocent lives," the statement quoted Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. "On this occasion the Taliban chose to hide amongst civilians and then attacked Afghan and U.S. forces."

"I wish to assure President (Ashraf) Ghani and the people of Afghanistan that we will take all possible measures to protect Afghan civilians," Nicholson added. "We will continue to assist the Afghan security forces in their efforts to defend their country."

But a Kunduz official told The Associated Press that the Afghan civilian death toll in the U.S. military probe was less than what local authorities had.

"More than 50 people, including women and children, were killed in the Afghan and U.S. forces' attack in Buz-e Kandahari," said Toryalia Kakar, a deputy provincial council member.

Kakar urged the United States to compensate the victims' families who he said not only lost their loved ones but also saw their homes and property destroyed in the airstrikes.

The Taliban briefly overran the city of Kunduz, the provincial capital with the same name, in October 2015, in a show of strength by the insurgents that also highlighted the troubles facing local Afghan forces, 15 years after the U.S.-led invasion of the country. The Taliban captured and held parts of Kunduz a year earlier as well, before the city was fully liberated weeks later with the help of U.S. airstrikes.

In the 2015 operation, a U.S. Air Force special operations AC-130 gunship attacked a Kunduz hospital run by the medical charity Doctors Without Borders, killing 42 people. Sixteen U.S. military personnel, including a two-star general, later were disciplined for what American officials described as mistakes that led the strike. Doctors Without Borders has called the attack a war crime and demanded an independent investigation.

After the firefight last November, Ghani criticized the Taliban for using women and children as "a shield" during the raid in Buz-e Kandahari. He also announced a local investigation had been started.

The U.S. military statement further added that its investigation "concluded that U.S. forces acted in self-defense" in the joint Afghan-American raid in the village.

"As an indication of the ferocity of the fire faced by friendly forces from the Taliban-occupied houses, two U.S. soldiers and three Afghan Army Commandos were killed," it said. "In addition, four U.S. soldiers and 11 commandos were wounded."

The raid also killed 26 Taliban fighters and wounded around 26 other insurgents, the U.S. military report said.

However, Kakar, the Kunduz official, disputed that death toll, saying not more than 10 Taliban fighters died.

The investigation concluded that U.S. air assets used the minimum amount of force required and that the civilians who were wounded or killed were likely inside the buildings from which the Taliban were firing. In addition, the U.S. military said a Taliban ammunition cache was struck and exploded, which also destroyed multiple civilian buildings and may also have killed civilians.

"It has been determined that no further action will be taken because U.S. forces acted in self-defense and followed all applicable law and policy," the statement concluded.

NATO's combat operations ended in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, a move that put Afghan forces in charge of the country's security. Since then, Afghan forces have suffered heavy casualties battling the Taliban, who have tried to expand their footprint across much of the country. NATO and U.S. casualties have been few.

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