A small checkpoint guarding a highway outside Lashkar Gah, in Helmand province, April 16, 2019. An airstrike in Helmand killed 17 policemen by mistake during a battle with the Taliban outside Helmand's capital.

A small checkpoint guarding a highway outside Lashkar Gah, in Helmand province, April 16, 2019. An airstrike in Helmand killed 17 policemen by mistake during a battle with the Taliban outside Helmand's capital. ()

KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. air support killed as many as 17 Afghan policemen and wounded 14 more after a police attempt to tear down a Taliban flag in southern Helmand province prompted a counterattack from the insurgents, Afghan officials said.

A statement from the U.S.-led NATO Resolute Support mission said an Afghan unit on the ground had told coalition forces that the area was clear of friendly forces.

“Unfortunately, they were not and a tragic accident resulted,” the statement read. “Afghan Security Forces as well as Taliban fighters were killed in the strikes. We’re examining the miscommunication to ensure it is not repeated. We regret this tragic loss of life of our partners and are committed to improvement every day with every mission.”

The Afghan Defense Ministry confirmed in a statement Friday that U.S. aircraft conducted attacks during the fight Thursday. Afghan Interior Ministry preliminary estimates said that at least eight had died and 11 were injured.

A local army commander, a Helmand provincial councilman and a hospital official in the provincial capital all said Friday that 17 had died and 14 were hurt.

The incident took place just outside of Lashkar Gah, the capital of the embattled southern province. Much of Helmand remains a Taliban stronghold.

Among those killed was a police battalion commander charged with securing a key highway, said Attaullah Afghan, head of the provincial council.

The police officer, Haji Gran Habib, was a former Taliban fighter who had joined the government side 17 years ago, said Maj. Hedayat Rasoly, an army battalion commander.

Rasoly often met with Habib on how to secure the highway from Lashkar Gah to neighboring Kandahar, an area “almost under the Taliban,” he said.

Another local security official, who asked to remain anonymous, said Habib and two of his men decided to take down a Taliban flag from a nearby water tower on Thursday night. The white insurgent banners are often displayed along the roads from Lashkar Gah, sometimes in view of Afghan military bases.

Although the water tower was within walking distance of a police training center, covert local support for the Taliban ensured anyone who tried to take down the flag received immediate sniper fire, local residents told Stars and Stripes via phone.

Habib decided to remove the flag but did not inform his chain of command before proceeding, Rasoly said.

After they arrived, the police tripped a mine, which exploded and alerted the Taliban to their presence, Rasoly said. The guerrillas began firing on them. Police at the nearby training center arrived to assist the first three officers but were unable to drive the Taliban back, he said.

The police unit then requested air support. Residents of Lashkar Gah heard a very loud explosion around 8:30 p.m. Thursday, they said.

Calling the airstrike a “tragedy,” Helmand province’s governor, Mohammad Yasin, said an investigation has been launched.

Fighting in Helmand has claimed the lives of more American, British and Afghan soldiers than any other province in Afghanistan during the 18-year war. Insurgents controlled slightly more than half of Helmand’s territory, according to U.S. military data from October.

Thursday’s attack comes about two months after miscommunication led to a U.S. airstrike that killed at least five Afghan soldiers and wounded nine others at a checkpoint in neighboring Uruzgan province, another area of heavy Taliban activity. In that March incident, a firefight had erupted after soldiers at a checkpoint began shooting at a patrol of their own troops, who were accompanied by American advisers on a planned nighttime raid outside the provincial capital Tirin Kot.Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report. Twitter: @jplawrence3

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